Sermon for Easter 6 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends.” Jesus says this to the apostles on the night before he was given over to suffering and death. He had washed their feet and shared supper with them, and finally, in the midst of his last discourse with them, he surprises them yet again with this wonderful affirmation of their relationship. But what did it mean for the disciples, and what does it mean to us?

In all honesty, this used to make me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve got plenty of friends. I don’t need another friend, I thought. I need a master, a Lord.

The problem here, though, was not that Jesus was turning a profound relationship into something frivolous. It was, rather, that I was minimizing the profundity of friendship. Friendship isn’t a bagatelle. Christian friendship is a very weighty thing. It goes beyond “being buddies”. It is, at its heart, a serious commitment like all Christian relationships. Let’s look at a couple of those relationships as a means of understanding how Christian friendship is similar in intent and effect.

In prebaptismal and premarital counseling I always try to make it a point to say that the relationships which are realized in these sacraments are essentially reflections. They are reflections of God’s perfect love for all humanity and of the perfect love held within the Godhead through the mystery of the Holy Trinity. So, a marriage and its concurrent obligations as made explicit in the nuptial vows is a reflection of God’s love for us and of the love which defines God’s internal relationship (if you remember my Trinity Sunday sermon from a couple of years ago, this is the perichoresis- the way we understand the Trinity not as a division of labor but as a relationship of mutual love held between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Thus marriage is, ideally, a mirror off of which God’s love is broadcast to the world, or perhaps a window, into which we can peer and see God’s love.

Likewise, Baptism is not only about the objective regeneration and adoption of the child, whereby he is forgiven and made a child of God. It is also (at least in the case of infant Baptism) a means by which parents and godparents commit themselves to a relationship with the child which reflects God’s love. A parent’s chief responsibility is to establish a relationship with the child in which God’s perfect love can be seen. It goes beyond the tangible support a parent gives her child – meeting basic needs – to include the intangible: spiritual and emotional support, a moral example, a home full of prayer and Christian education (which is, after all, primarily the responsibility of the family, not of the institutional church, which can only do so much to support them in it).

So, how is this like friendship? Well, it’s not if friendship is merely sharing common interests and indulging in leisure together. These are important aspects of a friendship, but they are not the defining qualities of a Christian friendship. Rather, it is openness and love and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own well-being for another. That’s how Jesus defines friendship in this morning’s Gospel anyway:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you… This I command you, to love one another… Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus embodies Christian friendship- he reveals his Father’s will, he deeply loves those whom he calls friends, and he quite literally lays down his life for them.

Our responsibility, then, is to do the same. We do the same for Christ, our friend, and we do the same for our brothers and sisters whom God has given us to be our friends. We open our hearts and our intentions to God, neither do we hide them from our friends. We love God by serving him, and we love our friends by doing the same. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves – our petty desires, our comfort, even perhaps literally our lives – for God and for those whom he has given us to love.

Are our friendships reflections of God’s love? For that matter are our relationships with spouses and children a reflection of God’s love? Are we open in those relationships? Do we behave lovingly? Are we prepared to sacrifice ourselves for those other people? These are questions we must prayerfully and dutifully ask ourselves all the time.

And so, I leave you this week not with answers but with questions, which can be rather disappointing, but at least in this case potentially more profitable. May God give you the will to ask them and the grace, strength, and courage to commit yourselves again to those relationships, knowing that the hardest but most important thing we can do is to be mirrors for God’s love.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It seems that when I ask folks how they’re doing these days, the answer is always a variant on the word “busy.” I don’t know how often I respond to this question by saying “It’s a busy time of the year,” without thinking, “When was the last time I wasn’t busy?” We’re coming up on Summer, which is supposed to be relaxing, right? But everyone I know seems nearly overwhelmed with end-of-the-school-year stuff, or family obligations, or something at work. It seems to me that what many of us need is just a chance to do what Jesus said: Abide.

Both today’s Epistle and Gospel use this word “abide”, which is our translation of the Greek “meno”. It was one of John’s favorite verbs, by the way. It appears 40 times in his Gospel and another 29 times in his letters. It’s one of those complex, Greek words that has layers of meaning. On one level it simply means “to remain”, but it also means “to rest”, “to be held continually” and “to await”.

We are told this morning to abide in the vine, to abide in God, and to abide in love. These aren’t very action-oriented commandments. Rest in love. Be held continually by the vine. Await God.

This is a hard teaching for many of us. Our culture values productivity and efficiency above all else. Even in that lovely image of the vine, my own mind turns to labor rather than renewal. In fact, the image which always comes to mind for me is that of my grandmother, carrying my dad around in a nineteen-fifties version of a baby bjorn (I doubt such a thing actually existed), tending the vines with her in-law’s relatives in California while my grandfather was in Korea. It’s an image of hard work. But in this morning’s Gospel it’s God tending the vine. It’s God doing the hard work. We must first abide, rest in the vine, if we are to bear fruit.

And bear fruit we must. Lest we think that we are being taught to be lazy, Jesus concludes his teaching by saying, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” “Faith without works,” James’ Epistle reminds us, “is dead.” But on the other hand, works without faith are nigh on impossible. The trick, then, is to rest in God, to abide in the vine, so that we have sustenance to bear fruit.

And what is that fruit? It is easy enough to say that it means good works, acts of charity. But consider the metaphor Jesus is using. It’s not an orange grove or an olive tree; it’s a grapevine. And what do grapevines produce? Well, grapes obviously. And what do grapes become? Grapes produce wine. And, at least as ancient people understood it, wine produces happiness. Scripture continually uses the image of wine to talk about joy.

Anyway, the fruit we bear brings joy to the world. The knowledge and love of Christ which we spread, which by our Baptims we are commissioned and required to spread, is nothing less than the only source of true happiness there really is in this world. We certainly have work to do.

But if we’re not connected to the vine, we cannot produce good wine (or even Welch’s for that matter). We must stay connected to flourish.

How we do that is something we are reminded of over-and-over again, but which bears repeating as often as possible. First and foremost, it is the Blessed Sacrament, the “food for pilgrim’s given.” It is also daily prayer, daily re-acquaintance with scripture, and – yes – rest. A popular modern metaphor says that we should “recharge the batteries”. I think the vine is a better metaphor. You have to take the batteries out of a device to charge them. The branches, though, are always connected to the vine. That means that in even the most draining of circumstances, we don’t have to shut down (or “burn out” as some of my clergy friends talk about). We’re still connected. We just need to open ourselves to more of the good stuff that Jesus is pumping through the vine instead of trying to grow grapes without nourishment. So maybe we need to take a lesson from Jesus, and from time-to-time permit ourselves to abide.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This sermon gets a little heady, so I thought I’d start with a reflection on something a bit less daunting- namely, television. Many of you know that we don’t have cable, but I still try to keep somewhat in touch with what is going on in the zeitgeist, and I’m fully aware of the ascendancy of reality television as a phenomenon. Some years ago I heard about a program called Ghost Hunters, in which a team calling itself The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS) investigates old buildings rumored to be haunted. I’ve looked up some clips online from time to time, and, as you will have already guessed, I find the program to be more-than-a-little silly.

You may think this is an example of the pot calling the kettle black, since some of you know that I quite like scary movies, but I find Ghost Hunters especially silly because it presumes to be based in reality. That said, the show has been a phenomenal success in terms of ratings. It’s no wonder, since polls have shown that nearly one-third of Americans believe in ghosts (I am, by the by, among the two-thirds that don’t, but I suspect – simply because of the statistics – that not everybody here agrees with me).

I bring all this up, because I’m afraid that the popular view of the afterlife is more like a ghost story than the traditional, orthodox teaching of the church. The view of American folk Christianity, which has progressively found its way into the mainline, historic churches, is that at the moment of death one’s soul leaves one’s body behind, springing from these ugly bags of mostly water, the husks which contain our essential being until freed by death.

But this is about as far from the Christian view of the Resurrection as one can get. Consider this morning’s Gospel reading. The disciples were terrified because they thought Jesus was a ghost. So, Jesus has them touch him, and see that he is as much a flesh-and-blood person as they. To make the point even stronger, Jesus asks for food and eats it. A ghost doesn’t need breakfast, but a man certainly does (preferably with bacon, but broiled fish will do).

We are told over-and-over in scripture, that our Resurrection will be like our Lord’s. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians he writes that at the last trumpet blast the bodies of the dead shall be raised incorruptible.

Likewise, look to the Old Testament. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones doesn’t have ghosties flying around, but bones and sinews and flesh and skin coming together.

Or take the Fathers of the Early Church for that matter. For example, the following is excerpted from Justin Martyr’s treatise on the Resurrection from A.D. 153:

Indeed, God calls even the body to resurrection and promises it everlasting life. When he promises to save the man, he thereby makes his promise to the flesh. What is man but a rational living being composed of soul and body? Is the soul by itself a man? No, it is but the soul of a man. Can the body be called a man? No, it can but be called the body of a man. If, then, neither of these is by itself a man, but that which is composed of the two together is called a man, and if God has called man to life and resurrection, he has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body

Examples from both scripture and Christian tradition could be cited ad nauseum, but it should suffice to say that orthodox Christian belief unequivocally rejects body-soul dualism and affirms the bodily Resurrection not only of Christ but of all believers.

Two questions remain. First, if this were the case, why have so many Christians got it wrong? Second, why does it even matter?

The first question is easier to address. It seems to me that the Christian insistence on a bodily resurrection requires more explanation than the dualistic approach to be pastorally satisfying. I am often asked if a departed loved -one is now in the presence of God, and I can say “yes” in all sincerity, but it requires more explanation. We have not yet heard the final trumpet blast nor have we seen the bodies rise from their graves, but this is a function of our human need to experience reality as chronological. The passage of time is a constraint neither of the mind of God nor of the life of His Kingdom. So, while from our perspective our loved-ones are now plainly dead, resting in peace awaiting the Resurrection, from God’s perspective they can already be said to be alive. For this explanation to be emotionally satisfying, it requires us to think philosophically. It is much easier to say “yes, Aunt Myrtle’s soul just sprung from her body, and now she’s a ghosty living in the clouds.” It’s a rather lazy approach, and patently false, but I suppose it’s one way of comforting a person.

The second question is “So what?”. Why does this matter? Well, believe it or not, it matters a great deal. The sort of dualism which claims that the body is nothing more than a shell in which the soul resides suggests that the material world is somehow lacking. It ignores God’s declaration in the Creation story that His Creation was good. We start to see our bodies as prisons and the world we inhabit as inherently bad.

Our bodies and the rest of the material world are not crude shadows of the real. God made them and called them good. God reaffirms this truth in choosing to raise us from the dead with bodies real enough to touch and to eat and to do everything else a body is meant for. God reaffirms this truth in choosing not to consign us to some cloudy never-never land but rather to create a new heaven and a new earth on the last day.

When we fail to see this, there are serious implications. When we see our bodies and the world as temporary hindrances rather than gifts, we abuse them. We abuse Creation by polluting it, because deep down we believe it’s bad and it has no effect on that dull world inhabited by clouds and harps which we created out of whole-cloth without consulting Scripture and Church Tradition. When we start to see bodies as aberrations, violence (against ourselves and others) stops being so shocking.

Doctrine has moral implications. Bad theology can lead to poor morals. Take, for example, the homophobic hate-group Westboro Baptist Church that pickets military funerals. Good theology, conversely, can lead us to moral maturity. So, if this romp through the theology of the body does anything, I hope it helps us start to treat our bodies and the rest of creation with love and respect. Christians of all stripes haven’t done a bang-up job of this all the time. We, however, have the added benefit of knowing that God is with us. He has promised to restore to fullness whatever has been broken by human sin. He has promised to restore our bodies and our earth, making them whole once again on the last day. How we act as stewards of these gifts now, though, is of eternal significance. Thanks be to God that we have His Word and Sacraments to sustain us in this task. Pray that we may rise to so great a challenge.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.