Sermon by the Rev’d Jay C. James for June 28, 2020, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’

The Bible presents us with many images and impressions of Jesus.  Depending on where we pick up the New Testament and begin reading, particularly in the Gospels, we can come away with very different pictures and understandings of who this person is and what He claims to be.  What is your latest impression?  For some He may be the gentle, kind, caring pastor?  The image and stories of the Good Shepherd could leave you with that picture.  Is He the suffering victim we find in the passages describing His Passion and Crucifixion?  If we happen to be reading chapter ten of The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, then we probably know him as a killer and warmonger.   Didn’t we just hear, Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?  It’s difficult to picture the Lord and Savior of our lives as a warmonger.  This demands some interpretation because the description just does not fit with the Jesus we know.  We know Him as being at One with the God of love and peace, not wielding a sword and going into battle. 

Before we run off and enlist in one of the branches of the military.  Before we start gathering the troops or putting the wagons in a circle maybe we should take a couple of steps first.  We can examine the way “peace” is used by Jesus here in Matthew 10:34 and we can look at the action taking place in the Gospel account around this passage.  Maybe those two exercises will shed some light on the meaning of I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  Perhaps a closer inspection of the context in which Jesus seems to be declaring war will relieve us from having to believe that Jesus wants us wielding swords, and forgetting about “peace”, and going off to war.  

What is the nature of this kind of “peace” to which Jesus refers?  We return to the Greek and find that ‘peace’ translates eirene.  It’s the word from which we get the word ‘irenic’.  It means the kind of harmonious relationships that can exist between people; men or women.  If you know someone whose name is Irene, then you can tell her that her name means the personification of peace.  The second part of our exercise, looking at the action taking place in this Gospel passage, shows that Jesus is preparing the disciples, through instruction, to begin their missionary journeys.  He has just called the first twelve disciples.  Jesus wisely and really lovingly let’s them know that when they are His servants, they will have to endure suffering.  He gives them some encouragement.  Then He lets them know that He comes armed with a sword and that they will have to bear a cross, if they are willing to follow Him.  …and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  They are going into a battle, but not the battle that earthly armies fight.  

There is a conflict but the conflict the disciples will enter will be between them and the persons not choosing to follow their teaching.  It will not be peaceful because choices actually have consequences.  If we choose one thing, then it means that we have not chosen another.  The importance of the choice is heightened and emphasized by Jesus.  It is a choice that must be made and He uses the strength of the bonds in family ties to show how powerful a choice it is to follow Him.  He is trying to illustrate the amount of strength and commitment it will require of them.  It is comparable to the amount of strength needed to break the bond between a son and his father, a daughter and her mother, a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, and between other members of a family.  That is the amount of commitment and faithfulness required to follow Jesus.  It is not a light choice.

Choice causes division.  Hence, the sword in the hands of Jesus.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  We do not like to think that loving Jesus and following Him will involve carrying a sword of division in His Name.  But when you think about it, if you choose to follow Jesus, it means you have rejected something else.  The people, ideas, or beliefs rejected as a result of one choice may result in division.  Being prepared for that is part of Jesus’ instruction to those first disciples.  In fact, Jesus is saying, Count on it.  …and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 

The Good News is the true freedom and liberation in choosing to stay with Jesus by being part of His Kingdom and working to bring others into His Kingdom.  There is freedom from the bonds of sin even in this world and the reward of eternal life in the next life.  Saint Paul writes this in his letter to the Romans.  There is freedom in uniting oneself to Christ and living not under the old Law, but under the absolute assurance of God’s grace.  Once one is united to Christ, the old person dies with Him and then is raised with Him to a new life.   That is why choosing to be with Christ is the most important decision a man or woman can make.  

We need to be careful here.  Saint Paul is not saying, “Your choice to follow Christ has freed you from following any moral law.”  In fact, he is teaching the Romans and all others united to Christ that being saved and free under grace does not mean we can do anything we want.  No, we must read The Letter to Romans past verse 11 all the way through verse 14.  There we find that once we are living our new life in Christ, we must yield (ourselves) to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. We do not continue in sin thinking that everything we do will be covered by grace.  We live as witnesses of Christ with full confidence that God’s grace can direct and rule our lives.   

Even in those early days of the Church, Saint Paul had to face Christians who thought they could be free from keeping a moral law like the Ten Commandments.  This kind of false teaching is called antinomianism, or being “against the moral law”.  This belief in its extreme form was that the more a Christian sinned, the more grace would cover the sin so the amount one sinned did not matter.  Of course, it’s not true, but the belief is still around today.  There are Christians who do not worry or have a concern about what they think, do, or say because they believe that Christ has already covered their sin.  Their mistake is not realizing that new life in Christ means deliverance from sin and being free to have one’s whole life lived as dedicated to God in this world and live forever with Him in the next. 

That is the second reward for choosing Christ; eternal life.  Jesus assures the disciples as they are sent out that there will be a struggle, a battle.  They will be rejected by some as they are preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, but in the end there is a reward.  It is the same reward given to the prophets.  He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.  He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.  The One who sent Jesus is God the Father.  Being received by God the Father means inheriting eternal life.  Choosing to follow Jesus means choosing a new life under grace and the reward of eternal and everlasting life.  

There are plenty of images from the Gospels we can claim for Jesus because they’re all there:  the Good Shepherd, the Crucified Lord of Glory, and if we want to, even the false image of a warmonger.  I like the way C.S. Lewis answered the question in his essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”  Lewis knew that there are many claims people could put on Jesus.  He turned the question around and asked, “What can Jesus make of us?  If we choose to believe and follow Jesus, He can forgive us, heal us, help carry our burdens, and give us a brand new life and that life is a life of the love of God. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.  

Sermon by the Rev’d Jay C. James for June 14, 2020, the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And preach as you go, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

There is a negative skepticism in the idiom, the devil is in the details.  There is a hopeful optimism in the variant, God is in the details.  At least that’s the way it seems to me.   When I found out that the nineteen century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, might be the source of the saying, the devil is in the details, while the German architect, Gustave Flaubert, a contemporary of Nietzsche, is the possible source of God is in the details, I felt comfortable with my reaction to the idioms.  When I’m digging down into the details of anything, it’s nice to know I may find God in the end, rather than rummage through all the details and discover the Devil.  It’s also encouraging to know that God is in the details, preceded the devil is in the details

It is finding God and something about His character in the details and the specifics that comes to mind in reading the Scripture readings appointed for this Second Sunday after Pentecost.  We find in the passage from Exodus that, of all the people on the earth, God maintains a covenant with the people of Israel.  He specifically called out and chose the Israelites.  The Lord told Moses in the wilderness of Sinai that if the people will obey God’s voice and keep the Covenant He made with them, then they would “be His possession”.  We find in the Gospel passage for today the specific calling of the disciples by name.  Then they are given a mission and ministry that will involve particular gifts.  On top of that, they are even directed by Our Lord to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  They are even told what to preach while they are sent out.  Their sermon topic is to be, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Singling out the people of Israel, appointing the Apostles, giving them a direction and purpose, is clearly dealing with details and as pointed out earlier, God is in the details.

Because God loves His people and wants them back with Him He makes a covenant with them.  Not with everyone, but in this case with the Israelites.  They then know the way back to Him.  The problem is man tends to sin and in this weakness breaks the covenant.  They need to repent for breaking the covenant, and be brought back to the original purpose.  We may count six or as many as twelve covenants God made with Israel, and all of them are establishing a bond, a caring, a love between God and the people He chose to be His own.  Time and time again Israel was recalled to the purpose and promise God made with them and they made with God.  Then the promise was fulfilled to have an everlasting covenant through the sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus Christ and we find this described in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Saint Paul is describing how by faith in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we are given the grace to share, as he puts it, in the glory of God.  This newest and lasting covenant gives us the greatest love of God because through Christ’s action we are now given the Holy Spirit.  With the Holy Spirit given to the Church and living in our hearts we have two wonderful benefits.  We are put back in a right relationship to God.  Saint Paul calls this being reconciled to God.  There is a second benefit and that is that new life, real life, everlasting life is given to all those who have faith in Jesus Christ.  Saint Paul writes, For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  That life is life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are shown what this life is like when Jesus begins sending the apostles on their mission.   

The Kingdom of Heaven is established with the presence of Jesus.  It is established and people have access to it in a certain way even during Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Jesus directs and commands the apostles, Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  It will be brought to its completion, its fullness, as we know, after Jesus’ death, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Ghost.  Jesus gives gifts and allows signs of the establishment of the Kingdom even with the  apostles.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast our demons.  These are all signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is there.     

Again, the details and specifics are very important here.  Jesus has given clear directives about what the apostles are supposed to do, what gifts of preaching and healing they are supposed to have, and now to whom they are supposed to go.  Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The people of Israel need to be recalled to their purpose and that is to love God, by being faithful and obedient to Him.  They are to go from house to house and present the teaching and the signs that the Kingdom of heaven has arrived.  When Jesus is present, the Kingdom is present.  

We need the Good News of Jesus Christ to begin at home first.  Just as the nation of Israel needed to relearn who and what they were supposed to be before the Word of the Kingdom would be taken to the Gentiles and the Samaritans, so we must have Jesus Christ’s grace-filled Word begin with us in our homes.  If someone were to visit our home, would the person leave knowing we are Christian?  What will the person see us doing or saying in the home to make them come to the conclusion that Christians live in the home?  

When we move beyond our homes we come to the Church.  Does the Gospel need to be preached to our Churches?  The apostles were sent to their own people first, and so the Gospel needs to be preached and taught to those who call themselves Christians first,  before it is sent abroad.  The Church needs to continually be renewed and recalled to its original purpose and intention.  The Church can fall into unfaithfulness and disobedience.  It can drift from its moorings by leaving the Commandments from Holy Scripture behind.  It will follow other teachings.  Jesus knew what He was doing when He sent those first apostles to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  If the Church is not teaching and preaching what Christ taught, we must make sure that is corrected.  Watered down doctrine and willfully following man-made trends will not do.   

Let us constantly strive to be obedient to Jesus and faithful to Him.  Not because we want to show others how good we can be, but because Jesus tells us to if we want to live forever with Him in His Kingdom. That is our original goal and purpose.  Living as a member of  His Kingdom is also the answer to so many of the sins, both personal and corporate, to which we are subject today.  Willfulness, self-centeredness, alienation; are just some of the sins visited on us as individuals.  Injustice, greed, indifference to others’ needless suffering are some of the sins we commit corporately.  All can be addressed and reconciled by living faithfully under Jesus in His Kingdom.  That is why we must always keep the Kingdom of Heaven in front of us as the hope of our calling.  We want to be with Him under His heavenly rule in this life, continue in His Kingdom when we leave this world, and be part of His Kingdom when He comes again.  

Let’s see if the details of a life in His heavenly Kingdom include being faithful to Him each step of the way.  In the Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.  

Sermon by the Rev’d Jay C. James for May 31, 2020, the Feast of Pentecost

…I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

“Just let me show you,” was the appeal the father made to his son as they worked away building the birdhouse.  The boy was attempting to use a real hammer for the first time and to drive a small nail into the edge of the board.  As simple a task as that should be, the boy could not balance the two pieces of wood, and drive the nail, and hold the hammer all at once.  “If you would just let me show you,” pleaded the father, “then you will know how to do it correctly.  If you let me show you, then you won’t hit your finger, the birdhouse will go together easily, and the work will be completed.”  The father was trying to show his son, from knowledge and experience, how things should be in the world of birdhouse construction.  The father has the big picture and is trying to reveal some of the specifics of woodworking to the son for the son’s benefit.  Things will be better, safer, and even more joyful for the boy if he accepts what his father is about to reveal to him. The revelation of the truth in the way of birdhouse building is the same in principle as in matters of religion and especially in the Christian religion. 

It is the principle of Christianity being a revealed religion that is boldly displayed for us on this Feast of Pentecost.   We have a rushing, mighty wind, tongues of fire, hundreds of people gathered from various nations, and the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son being fulfilled.  What clearer evidence do we need to prove that Christianity is revealed.  The apostles knew this and gathered where they were instructed to be and the Holy Spirit, for whom Jesus told them to wait, appeared and was imparted; a graphic event that reveals Christianity comes from God the Holy Trinity.  This is the way of Christianity and it does not hurt to be reminded of this regularly and often.  We should give thanksgiving to God that we have this Feast to remind us of the principle.  

If not reminded, then we can forget about Christianity’s revealed truths.  If we forget, then we will not rely on the truths that can help us in this world.  The father helping his son construct the birdhouse is the source of comfort, knowledge, and someone on whom the son can rely to have him complete the birdhouse.  In the course of the project, if the son allows the father to help him, then the son will actually be drawn closer to the father and love and trust between the father and son will deepen.  If we rely on the truths of the religion that Jesus revealed to us, then our lives will be drawn closer to the way God wants us to be.  We cannot forget that the healing grace of forgiveness is with us now, after the first great Pentecost.  We must remember that we are not in the world by ourselves. We are bound to all other baptized believers whether they have gone before us or are with us now.  We must always keep before us that we are intended to receive the gift of everlasting life.  We can depend on these truths and rely on them now.  

Since Christianity is revealed to us by God through the work and witness of His Son and the operation of the Holy Ghost then we have a religion on which we can depend.  We can depend on the grace of God through the power of the Holy Ghost to bring us back to Him.  What a precious gift we have been given to be part of the Church.  For our part, we have to accept the precious gift of the Holy Ghost and be led by Him.  We have to remember that it may be that God the Holy Ghost knows more about who we are and what is best for us then we know for ourselves.  We need to be alive with Spirit as Jesus instructs Philip, If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.   

It is the Holy Ghost that is alive in the members of the Church and that is another reason to celebrate this Feast of Pentecost.  We have the Holy Ghost to feed us by grace and that grace is available in the Scriptures, in prayer, in service, in the Sacraments, and fellowship with faithful Christians.  We are celebrating the beginning of the Church’s witness in the world after Christ had ascended into heaven.  In yet another way we are celebrating the work of the Holy Ghost all through time in the Church’s members.  Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons for The Feast of Pentecost, describes how the Church is alive in showing the parallel between the soul and Body with men and women and the Holy Ghost with the Church.  He gives the analogy, the soul is to the Body as the Holy Spirit is to the Church.  (In the body) The duties of each member are different, but one soul joins all together.  Many things are commanded, many done, but one commands, one is obeyed.  What our spirit, that is, our soul, is to our own members, this the Holy Spirit is to the members of Christ, to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.  The Church, of which we are a part, is alive by the Holy Ghost.   We depend on being fed by the Holy Ghost, not the other way around.  The Church is not alive because we are members.  We are alive by virtue of the Holy Ghost in us by our Baptism.   

Many in the Church are taught that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.  In a certain way it is.  It is the beginning of the life of the Church in the world because Pentecost is the time Jesus delivered the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church ten days after He ascended back to the Father.  Other Christians would strongly argue for other points to be the birthday of the Church.  The more one tries to determine a point when the Church began, the more cases can be made for a number of times, other than Pentecost.  Did the Church begin at Pentecost, or did the Church begin at the Last Supper when Jesus said, “This is My Body and this is My Blood?”  Or did the Church begin when the Angel Gabriel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bear a Son and call His Name Jesus?”  Or did the Church begin when God made a covenant with the people of Israel and called them out to be His people?  Maybe the Church began when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt and made it through the parted waters of the Red Sea?  Maybe the Church began when God made Adam and Eve and blessed them above all living creatures?   This leaves us to pick a point for the Church’s origin and thank God for it because the Church is the ark of our salvation.  

We are saved by the work of the Church, no matter when we celebrate her birthday, yet we have another principle of the Church for which to be thankful.  Our thanksgiving can equally be offered for the comfort given us by being part of a unified Body.  It is a great comfort of the Holy Ghost that we can be part of one Body and that is Christ’s Body.  Comfort comes from unity.  We know of the comfort of the fledgling Church in the Acts of the Apostles where Saint Luke is describing Saint Paul’s early preaching and teaching in Jerusalem, So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied.

Don’t we know of the comfort of being part of a family?  Whether it’s belonging to our immediate or extended family, our parish family, or the family of the Church.  There is comfort when these are unified.  When families worship together. When they look out for and support one another.  When they are moved by the Holy Ghost to believe and teach the same things.  Once again, it’s Saint Augustine in his sermon for The Feast of Pentecost who emphasizes the catholic unity of the Church at Pentecost, not the birthday or beginning of the Church.  Augustine preaches, How did He tell us of His Presence; reveal It to us?  By the fact that all spoke in the tongues of every nation…each man, singly, spoke in the tongue of every nation.  One and the same man spoke the tongue of every nation:  the unity of the Church amid the tongues of all the nations.  See here how the unity of the Catholic Church spread throughout all nations is set before us.  Augustine sees the unity only coming by the presence of the Holy Ghost.  The nations gathered in Jerusalem.  They hear one voice really, because as the apostles preached everyone heard the words in his own language.  This Holy Ghost comes from only one man, Jesus Christ, therefore all are united in Him.  

A summary of our purpose for celebration:  We have a religion revealed by God the Holy Ghost, and if we allow ourselves to be directed by it, it will save us.  Just as the boy trying to construct the birdhouse will complete his project in the best way if he follows his father’s lead.  The life of the Church generated and driven by the Holy Ghost, who lives in us while we’re in this world, means our lives are more fulfilled.  The birdhouse-building father and son will enjoy the fruit of love and trust together long after the birdhouse is complete.  Finally, the binding together of the Church by the Holy Ghost leads us to the complete comfort of union we will have with the Father in heaven.  

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson for May 24, 2020, the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Today we celebrate together a neglected and misunderstood moment in our Lord’s life and ministry. It is the Ascension, which concludes Jesus Christ’s work on earth. And we say we believe in the Ascension every time we recite the Nicene Creed, but I doubt whether we are always fully aware of what the Ascension entails.

Inasmuch as the Ascension is a conclusion, it looks backward; but it also looks forward, to the next great moment in the history of salvation: the coming of the Holy Spirit.

That the Ascension brings Jesus Christ’s work to a conclusion means that he goes back to the Father, as he himself says in verse 11 in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. John speaks frequently of Jesus coming from the Father, but he means by this something much more intimate than what it sounds at first.

We speak sometimes of someone sending us a letter. The letter has come from someone. But this is not what John is saying. Jesus comes from the Father more like in the sense that a child comes from her mother. Jesus is one with the Father, is with the Father from eternity, and as he says in verse 5 of John 17, he and the Father shared their glory “before the world was made.”

There is not an external relationship between the Father and the Son—as between a letter and its sender—but rather one of eternal and perfect unity.

So in the Ascension Jesus returns to that intimate fellowship that he has always had with the Father and always will have. He goes back to the Father from whom he has come and with whom he has always enjoyed perfect unity.

But this raises an interesting question, and that is how Jesus Christ can be present on earth, living a fully human life, and still enjoy perfect unity with his Father who is in heaven?

Thomas Aquinas has a thoughtful answer to this question; he describes the presence of the Son of God on earth as his being on a “mission.” And to be on a mission, Aquinas says, is to be present in a new way.

God is omnipresent, always everywhere and always has been everywhere and always will be everywhere. Similarly, the persons of the Holy Trinity are never divided from one another, certainly not by place.

But during the earthly mission of Jesus, the Son was present in a new way: present in time and space, living a full human life from conception in the womb of his Virgin Mother to his sacrificial death.

When he is raised to new life he is likewise raised in a new spiritual body, a body that while still present for 40 days in time and space also does not seem to be subject to time and space. During these 40 days, which we have just completed, the Son is present, making himself known as resurrected to his disciples, and giving them the final assurances and commands that he will have to teach them.

When he ascends then to the Father that in a way he never really left, he does so because his mission, his new way of being present, his mission has been in a word—accomplished.

But I said the Ascension looks forward as well, and so it does. Our reading from Acts tells us about one of Jesus’s most important final promises, the sending of the Holy Spirit.

It’s been pointed out to me that there must have been some suspense in the minds of the disciples in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. The shock of the crucifixion was dispelled by the joy of the resurrection, and now once more ambiguity descends: The Holy Spirit has been promised, but surely they cannot know what that means, how long they will have to wait, or what it will look like when the Holy Spirit does come.

This is why the Ascension also looks forward, to Pentecost. Because according to Aquinas, the Son is not the only person of the Holy Trinity to be on mission. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit embarks on a mission and therefore becomes present in a new way: present in the ongoing ministry of the church, present on thousands of altars around the world, present in the hearts of faithful believers of every race and place, of every language and nation.

There is one last thing that must be said for us to fully understand the Ascension.

When the mission of Jesus is accomplished and he ascends to his Father, he takes his perfect humanity with him. I said that the Son is present in the complete life of Jesus Christ, from birth to death to new life: It is vital that the Son live through all of human life because God intends to take all of human life into his own endless divine life.

In the Ascension, God assumes all of human life—with its suffering and pain and loss and death—and resurrects it all and brings it into the endless and unbreakable unity of the persons of the Holy Trinity. Having lived human life himself God eternally has lived it, and he now offers the promise and sure and certain hope of a deathless life he to all humanity.

Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons on the Ascension says it this way: “Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace.”

The Son was present in time and space, because we are present in time and space. Now however his mission takes on the universal scope it always had from the beginning: The Son is not somewhere at some time but is available to all people for all time.

Just as the Son has never the left the Father, so in a sense he never really left us.

It was a great blessing to pray this collect for the Ascension on Ascension Day itself, this past Thursday. “O Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abideth with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

This collect captures the point I want to make very beautifully, and it seems especially appropriate to our moment.

Jesus Christ ascended that he might fill all things: He ascends because his mission is accomplished and the universal and eternal nature of his mission is now clear.

And now more than ever we need the faith to perceive that he remains with his church on earth, even to the end of the ages. Amen indeed.

Sermon by the Rev’d Jay C. James for May 10, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son:  if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

It seems this declaration from Jesus to the apostles leaves them a wide open field to furrow and plant their prayers of petition.  …if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.     Really?  Does this mean that if they ask anything, then the Lord will do anything for them or give anything to them?  It reminds me of the petitions in the Janis Joplin song,  O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?  We cannot help but be in sympathy with the sentiment in the song.  Why not ask?  After all, Jesus does promise, Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.  The sky’s the limit, it seems to me.  Try it sometime and see what happens.  Ask for anything and see if it is done for you in the Name of Jesus.  

No, there must be much more to Jesus’ instruction than granting a positive response to any petition offered by Thomas, Philip, or any of the other disciples.  That cannot be what Jesus is teaching on prayer.  If you don’t believe me, just think about whether or not God has answered all your prayers in the way you would like.  I would like to offer possible alternative conclusions.  One: this instruction from Jesus on prayer is not about imposing our wills and desires on God in the Name of Jesus but is about Jesus’ unity with God the Father and the Holy Ghost.  Secondly, it is because of that unity in the Trinity that we have a distinct privilege when we pray, and the privilege is knowing and being closer to God the Father.  Finally, we will be able to see the whole purpose of prayer and how our prayer lives actually have a good and ultimate goal.  

It helps to first realize that the Gospel passage for this Fifth Sunday of Easter captures two instructions from Jesus to two disciples just before the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Both of the teachings drive home how Jesus is indeed the Christ of God.  The first teaching is the well-known declaration of Jesus to Thomas, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me.  Thomas asks to know the way Jesus is going so he and the other disciples can follow.  Jesus gives him not only the Way, but also declares that He is the Truth and the Life and the way to God the Father.  Similar instruction is given to Philip when he asks to see the Father.  Again, Jesus lets the disciples know that if they have seen Jesus, then they have seen the Father.  It is immediately after this that Jesus promises to send them the Holy Spirit,  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.  After this revelation, that Jesus and the Father are one, he promises their petitions will be answered.  Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.  The Father will grant anything if asked by the Son because He will send the Holy Spirit to have it done.  The three are one so if the Holy Spirit is given, then the Father and the Son are doing the work too.

What does it take to ask something in the Name of Jesus so He will do it?  It takes love.  The love is that of a servant for his lord, the child for the father and mother, the love of the student for the teacher.  We know what it is like when we are doing a task and it is something that we want to do because we truly want to please and love the person for whom we’re doing it.  When the work is an act of love, it is not work at all.  Ask the grandmother who prepares and serves the large Sunday dinners at her house.  Her family all arrive and she is actually filled with joy at what she considers a privilege of having her family gather, enjoy the meal, and the unity of the gathered company.  She may look exhausted and has probably spent hours in preparation, but the joy and excitement of having the union of her loved ones makes joy appear on her face from the joy she feels inwardly.  It’s that kind of love and devotion that is part of the prayer offered out of love and is real prayer in Jesus’ name.  

Prayer in Christ’s name has also to be prayer that is offered in obedience to the Father.  All that the Father has given to us, we accept and obey when offering prayers in Jesus name.  We are obedient to His Commandments of loving God and our neighbor.  We love all the means He has taken to secure our salvation.  If it is not offered out of love for the Father, then the prayer is simply the exercise of our will.  We cannot be united to Jesus if we are only exercising our wills and therefore God’s love will not be given in return.  The love of God is indeed given in return by prayer offered in Jesus’ name because the Holy Spirit, at the request of the Son, is sent to live in our hearts.  That is prayer that is offered in Christ’s name.  This is why Jesus can declare, if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.  The prayer is actually part of the unity in the life of the Trinity. 

The late Peter Toon, an Anglican priest and former seminary professor, in his book Genuine Godliness and True Piety, explains how worship and prayer operate in the life of the Trinity. 

In the Bible we hear of God the Father creating the world, preserving the world, judging the world, and revealing Himself to the world, and always doing so through His only-begotten Son and by His Holy Spirit.  From the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit is the descent of God into His creation.  There is also an ascent to God from the creation presented in the Bible.  Worship, prayer and sacrificial service rise to the Father, though the Son (the Mediator) and with the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Trinity is revealed and known in the mission of God into and from His world in His great work of reconciling the world to Himself. 

All of our petitions and praises in prayer go to God the Father through the name of His Son Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is practiced in praises we offer when we pray Morning and Evening Prayer.  You will notice that the praises we offer from the Psalter are always offered in the name of the Trinity.  We always conclude each Psalm with the Gloria Patri.  Again, true prayer and praises are offered in Jesus’ name and is joined in the life of the Trinity.  

How privileged we are to pray as Christians in the name of Jesus.  As a result of this unity in the Trinity our prayers allow us some glimpse, some hope, some satisfaction, some sense of His presence, and maybe some instance of seeing the face of God.  John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of our Oxford fathers and progenitors of the catholic revival in Anglicanism, knew what a privilege praying is for the Christian.  He encouraged people who were not able to attend Church, not to see their lives in worship and prayer as a duty, but to see their lives of prayer as a privilege.  He told them that he would see them in Church once they realized what a privilege they have when they are in Church or at prayer.  He encouraged them, to realize to (themselves) that continual prayer and praise is a privilege; only feel in good earnest, what somehow the mass of Christians, after all, do not recognize, that ‘it is good to be here’ (like Peter, James, and John at the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration) –feel as the early Christians felt when persecution hindered them from meeting, –feel this and you will come if you can.  Prayers offered because it is such a privilege to be in the presence of God will evoke in the Christian a need and desire to pray and the Christian will not be praying simply out of a sense of duty.

The end and purpose of our prayers is to see God.  We should not try completing our prayers solely out of a sense of doing our duty.  That act of determination may be good to get us started.  It may be useful as a sense of discipline.  If that’s all prayer is then it becomes simply a pushing forward with our will.  If our prayer lives are to be, in the end, fruitful prayer lives, then they will have to show us the face of God.  Our Anglican spiritual lives have a purpose and it is described most clearly and helpfully by the classical Anglican priest and theologian Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “Then we are happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight:  so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God.  There it is.  The purpose and end of all prayer and devotion is the beatific vision.  The same vision that the saints enjoy even now.  It is only when we are perfectly united spiritually to God that we will love the way He wants us to love.  We will have perfect knowledge of Him.  We will see and know true joy just as all the saints of God see Him and know Him.  It is prayer in the world that will help prepare our souls to see the beatific vision.  That is why we pray.  Satisfaction, comfort, holiness, union with the Father all await us and the journey begins now. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson for April 26, 2020, the Third Sunday of Easter

I have not owned my own car for 23 years. We have been fortunate to live in places where you don’t need one. So I have done a lot of walking in my life. I like to walk.

But I have done a lot of walking these past few weeks—more even than I normally would. It gives you time to think, that’s for sure.

The best walks I find are with good friends, and I have fond memories of walking in company, but nowadays I walk alone.

Just yesterday I was approaching two people headed toward me who were walking at the edges of the sidewalk, as far apart as they could be, and I wondered why they were doing so until of course it occurred to me that they were deliberately staying as far apart from each other as they could.

So what was I supposed to do? Walk between them? Surely not. Too close. 

It’s a sign of the extent to which we are now plunged into mutual hostility and suspicion that we cannot even walk together without being nagged by the thought that we should not do so too close to one another. What could be more natural, after all, than walking together with a friend or companion? And what better way to spend some time walking with a loved one than to converse about subjects that matter to the both of you?

Luke tells us about two followers of Jesus who are in just such a relaxed natural state, walking together, talking together, about everything they had experienced as they go together from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Now we have never been able to establish where Emmaus might have been. It’s a matter of debate. No one knows. And there is something poetically satisfying about this ambiguity in my opinion.

Jesus has been executed by the Romans. Those who hoped in him are now desolate, scattered, alone. These two are together. On the road. They are moving from Jerusalem to somewhere, we know not where. They are in a between space, journeying, through uncertainty, from a place they know well to a place that no one knows.

And as they go, they are talking. Talking about what they have seen and experienced. Talking about their hopes most likely, how they have been dashed, and what they might do next.

And into this in between space, this journey from the known to the unknown, Jesus arrives. Or rather he does not just arrive, Luke says he “drew near and went with them.” He came close to them and resolved to journey with them, in a gesture so intimate that it would probably horrify anyone on the street in Boston today.

But he does something totally natural. He asks what they are talking about as they walk together.

And their response too is totally natural. They stop. And they look sad. They look sad because they are sad. And they wonder aloud how can you not know? How can you not know what is bothering the two of us? What is bothering all of us?

We are talking about “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”

That much everyone knows, or should know. That much is public gossip and scandal.

But there’s more to tell. And this part is a bit more exclusive. “Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”

It is of course Jesus who is hearing all this, though these two disciples do not recognize—perhaps cannot recognize—him for who he is.

Jesus has drawn near to them, and talked with them, as they go along the road. A road of trauma and despair and confusion. And having heard their strange report, he upbraids them for their lack of understanding and belief. This part is stunning, because the conversation is no ordinary one from here on out but an absolutely amazing one: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Now this is incredible because Luke tells us that to these two disciples Jesus explained everything there is to know about himself from the scriptures from Moses—from Moses!—through the prophets, everything there is to know about himself.

Wouldn’t you like to have been part of that conversation on the road? What could be more satisfying, informative, important to hear, than what Jesus himself has to say about himself from the Scriptures?

These two disciples, having heard this undoubtedly amazing discourse from Jesus about himself, urge him to stay with them on the road, and he consents.

But at dinner he blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to them, and at that moment, they recognize him for who he is, only to have him vanish from their sight.

What does this mean?

We are not told what Jesus says about himself to establish his identity from the scriptures, as interesting and important as that might be.

The reason this happens is because this task of interpreting who Jesus is from scripture, as meaningful and essential as that is, is in an even more meaningful and essential way caught up into a very different project, that of the Eucharist.

Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the last supper he shared with his disciples prior to his death. But the case could be made that the first actual Eucharist he celebrated was right here, on the road to Emmaus.

We do not need to hear what Jesus says about himself from the scripture because he will make that fully known to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Once the bread is blessed and broken and given, then the time for talking about who Jesus is, even Jesus’s own talking about himself, has come to an end.

We commemorate this ourselves in an ancient prayer that the priest often says before or during the crucial moments of the mass: “Be present, be present, Lord Jesus, as thou wast present to thy disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread.”

But we can I think guess at what Jesus might have said about himself from scripture, by paying attention to early apostolic preaching, the like of which we heard in the reading from Acts. Notice that Peter’s sermon makes no mention at all of what Jesus taught, only the death he endured and the resurrection he won by the grace of his father.

So here we find two of the great ministerial activities of the church.

Preaching is the act of expositing the word of God in such a way as to cause the hearts of our hearers to burn within themselves: to be inflamed with insight and inspiration.

As Jesus talks about himself from the scriptures, he sustains these two disciples with a very different kind of conversation. No longer do they speak out of confusion and disbelief, but instead they have the meaning of scripture revealed to them by the risen Christ who is the secret subject of all scripture.

By interpreting his own person and work, Jesus models the church’s work of proclaiming the scriptures and their witness to Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and what it all means.

The two disciples though only realize this retrospectively. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” They realize what it meant to be on the road with the Lord only after Jesus broke bread with them.

And that’s the second great ministerial activity of the church begun here—on the road. It is the administration of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion. All preaching, all interpretation of who Jesus is and what he has done, all talk about the scriptures, is a necessary companion to the Eucharist, which consummates all such talk and gathers it up within itself so to speak.

In the Eucharist we do not recite the truth of scripture; we enact it. The Eucharist dramatizes the truth of scripture, and once again it our Lord who is the instigator and presider over this activity as well. Having explained the truth of who he is, he now performs the truth of who he is.

And this is how the presence of Christ remains with us, every step of the way on the road. Until we reach the end of the road. He draws near to us even when we do not recognize him. He speaks the truth of who he is to us in the preaching of his church. He makes himself present to us in the breaking of the bread as he was present to his disciples.

We are still on a strange and winding road. But the church—your church and mine—goes on this same road. We are still preaching God’s word and celebrating the Eucharist each day. And that’s how we know that Christ is near to each and every one of us, every step of the way. Amen.