Our Apostolic Tradition – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


While I was in seminary, I stumbled upon a sweet summertime gig.  Every summer, the seminary would hire a couple of students to support the maintenance department during their busy season.  I applied and got the job.  On my first day of work, I went into the office of Dave Mutscheller, the Facilities Director, and got my assignment.  Because I had experience working for a construction company, they put me with Mr. Wayne who would be running several excavation projects that summer.  Mind you, my experience at the construction company was 99% behind a desk and 1% that time I drove the lead escort vehicle for an oversized load.  I had exactly zero hours of experience in the field, and I left Dave’s office pretty sure that I was in way over my head.  I met Mr. Wayne who handed me a grease gun and told me to grease the fittings on the old New Holland farm tractor the seminary used to dig ditches.  Now, I knew for sure I was in serious trouble.  As the summer went on, Wayne discipled me in the stuff they probably thought I knew before I got hired.  I learned how to set a catch basin, how to cement pipe, how to shoot grade, and even how to operate that old New Holland tractor.

One Friday, about mid-way through the summer, we were digging a new French drain behind a professor’s house, when at lunch, Wayne told me he was leaving early and that I should be able to finish digging and laying the drain by the end of the day.  Terror swept over me as I recalled the story from two summers earlier when Wayne dug up an unmarked, underground six-inch electric line in the middle of a field.  Breathing deeply, I hopped on that old blue tractor, and thought to myself, I have no business digging this drain, but if Mr. Wayne trusts me, I can do it.  It wasn’t the straightest ditch you’ve ever seen and we had to backfill with more stone than Dave would have liked, but it got done, and nobody got hurt and nothing got broken in the process.  Mr. Wayne had discipled me as far as he could, it was time to try it on my own.

In two of our lessons for this morning, we find the disciples in exactly the same spot.  Our Gospel lesson comes from the tail end of the long farewell discourse that Kellie mentioned last week.  After several years of day-by-day discipleship, Jesus and his disciples are together for one final meal before his death.  After washing their feet to show them what being his disciple should look like, Jesus spends three chapters giving them final instructions.  He gives them a new commandment, that they love one another.  He assures them that through him, they know the way to the Father.  He promises them the Holy Spirit who will come to guide them into all truth.  And finally, he prays for them.  His prayer isn’t so that God will know what to do with the disciples when he is gone, but rather so his disciples will know that even when he is gone, he has not left them abandoned.  Through the Spirit, the disciples will carry on the work of Jesus in his absence.  After years of discipleship, it was time for them to try it on their own.

Terror swept over them, and when the time came for Jesus to be arrested and crucified, they failed spectacularly.  Peter denied ever knowing Jesus while nine of the other ten disciples fled in fear.  By Easter evening, it was clear the disciples needed a bit more in the way of discipleship.  On Easter 2, we heard the story of Jesus entering the upper room late on that first Easter day.  Despite having heard the news of his resurrection from Mary Magdalene, the disciples were huddled behind locked doors in fear.  Jesus entered and offered his disciples peace.  He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them, knowing they needed it then more than ever.  For forty days, he continued to disciple them, this time not merely as their Rabbi, but as their risen Savior.  On the fortieth day, as our Acts lesson describes, Jesus once again gathered them together.  Aware that it was time for him to leave them again, he prepared one final discipleship lesson, when the group spoke up and asked a question.

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  After years of following him around the countryside.  After the fear and sadness of his crucifixion.  After the panic, joy, and disbelief of his resurrection.  After forty days of intense discipleship, it seems they still didn’t quite get it.  “It is not for you to know how it all will happen,” Jesus tells them, “but when the Spirit comes in power and might, you will have what you need to go out and tell the Good News from here to the end of the earth.”  And with that, despite much evidence to the contrary, Jesus had discipled them all he could on earth.  It was time for them to try it on their own.  As the book of Acts unfolds, we hear stories of the power of the Spirit that allowed these ordinary men and women to do miracles, to preach the Good News, to nurture new disciples, to stand up to oppression and persecution, and to grow the church from the 120 Jesus left behind to thousands of disciples around the known world within a couple of decades.  Like my French drain, it didn’t always happen in a straight line, and maybe it required more heaping a helping of the Holy Spirit than God might have wanted, but they were faithful to their teacher and they did the work entrusted to their care.

Some two-thousand years later, we are the recipients of that ongoing pattern of discipleship.  We take our place in the Apostolic Tradition by way of having the faith once shown to the Apostles by Jesus patterned to us by our parents, clergy, Sunday school teachers, and elders.  Throughout history, one generation of disciples has raised up another, teaching them what it means to love God and love our neighbor, showing them what compassionate service looks like, recounting the stories of God’s saving grace in the person of Jesus Christ, and baptizing new believers in water and the Spirit in the name of the Triune God.

Lest we think that discipleship training is only the purview of the clergy, our baptismal liturgy makes it clear that we all have a part to play in this ongoing Apostolic Tradition of discipleship.  This morning, we will welcome into the household of God two new members.  It would be easy enough to leave the discipleship work for these two young children to their parents, grandparents, and godparents.  Or, we could just rely on their being raised in the church and hand responsibility over to their priests, deacons, Sunday school teachers, Christian Education Directors, and youth leaders.  But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he told his ragtag group of disciples that it would be up to the Spirit and them to spread the Good News of his saving grace.  It certainly isn’t what our Prayer Book teaches when it asks of the congregation gathered, on behalf of the Church universal, to “do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ.”[1]

It is the job of all Christians to disciple the next generation in the model of Jesus.  We teach through our words: not only in what we say, but in the way we talk to our families, our friends, and total strangers.  We teach through our actions: through the way we care for those in need, where we donate our money, how we vote, even what car we drive.  We teach through our love: caring for all those whom God has put in our lives.  We teach by living the example of Jesus Christ: telling and showing the Good News that God loves everybody, no exceptions.  And one day, we will come to the point where we will have discipled them enough and they will have to try it on their own, through the power of the Spirit, taking their place in the Apostolic Tradition.  Like the disciples’ story, theirs’ won’t always be perfect, but thankfully God is good at forgiveness.  Empowered by the Spirit, today and every day, we each take our place in the long line of Christians discipling new disciples to the honor and glory of God.  Amen.

[1] 1979 BCP, 303.

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Knowing God is Eternal Life – a sermon

Audio is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

As a child of the 1980s, one of my favorite cartoons of all time is still the short lived G.I. Joe series.  Running for only ninety-five episodes over two years from 1985 to 1986[1], I still have vivid memories of the battles between the good guys of G.I. Joe and the bad guys of Cobra, “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”  I’d sit on the carpet in front of the television with my action figures of Flint, Shipwreck, Duke, Sargent Slaughter and their nemesis, Cobra Commander, and live out the episode using blocks and whatever G.I. Joe vehicle I had at my disposal.  What I remember most about those old episodes however, aren’t the battle sequences or the cool toys, but the tag line from the National Child Safety Council’s Public Service Announcements that ended many episodes, “Now I know!  And knowing is half the battle.”

There was some good, lifesaving information in those PSAs, things that every kid should know.  It was through G.I. Joe that I learned that if there was a fire in my house, I should check if the door knob was hot before leaving my bedroom, or to never get in an old refrigerator, or to pinch my nose and lean forward when I get a bloody nose or that girls could skateboard just as well as boys.[2]  As I’ve gotten older and presumably a little wiser, however, I’ve come to realize that knowing is a lot more than half the battle.  In fact, this week we come to learn that knowledge is eternal life.

For the third straight week, we find ourselves listening in on Jesus’ final conversation with is disciples.  We are still in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion, but now Jesus has finished his concluding instructions and has begun his high priestly prayer.  Like so many prayers that happen in a public forum, this one is part earnest conversation with the Father in heaven and part sermon for the people who are listening in.  Jesus understands that his death is going to make it hard for his disciples to believe in his claim of eternal life, and so he is very intentional about making it very clear just what eternal life is.  “And this is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

This is, for several reasons, a striking definition of eternal life.  First of all, it comes from the lips of the only human being who really knows what eternal life is like.  For every book and movie ticket sold about “90 Minutes in Heaven” or telling us “Heaven is for Real,” is only Jesus who came to earth having experienced the fullness of eternal life.  Secondly, this version of eternal life has nary a mention of Saint Peter guarding the pearly gates or streets paved with gold, or rivers flowing with milk and honey, or angel choirs singing their unending hymn of “holy, holy, holy.”  Here in ascension week, when we hear the story of Jesus ascending on a cloud from the first century flat earth to the heavens above, it seems very strange to think that for Jesus eternal life has nothing to do with a place, but rather it is about a relationship.

Despite our modern day fascination with heaven as a place to go after we die, the idea that knowing God is eternal life has been affirmed over and over again in the Christian tradition, be it in the prayer written in 1549 that we prayed just two weeks ago, “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life…”[3]

So, if eternal life really is knowing God, then the obvious follow up question is “how do I get to know God?”  It seems to me there are three distinct ways we can come to know the Lord: through study, through service, and through prayer.  The first way to get to know God is through study.  The Bible is the story of God’s interaction with his creation, and so, it stands to reason, that through reading and studying the scriptures, we’ll begin to discover the things that are close to God’s heart: things like justice, compassion, and love.  As we move deeper into study, it becomes important to not become isolated, but to check ourselves against the rich history of the tradition.  Studying what the great theologians have come to know over the centuries can seem daunting, but like that friend who introduced you to a future spouse, sometimes learning what someone else has to say about God can open your eyes to something you had never seen before.  Of course, studying comes with a major caveat.  There is a tendency in study, be it biblical or theological, to get to know an awful lot about God rather that actually getting to know God.  What I’m advocating this morning isn’t the gobbling up of information so that you can recite all sorts of facts about God and win The American Bible Challenge[4], but instead study is about learning everything we can about the things that are important to God.

As we come to learn the things that are in God’s heart, it seems obvious then that we would take part in those things.  The second way to get to know God, then, is through service.  Just last week, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that the Father would reveal himself to those who followed his commandment to love.  We come to know Jesus in a deeper and more meaningful way when we reach out to the world with the love of God.  Whether it is through Meals on Wheels or volunteering at Foley Elementary School or taking a mission trip to Honduras on the Dominican Republic, a deeper knowledge of God is most often found in acts of care and compassion.  This is affirmed in my favorite Collect from Morning Prayer.  The Collect for Mission from Morning Prayer, written by Missionary Bishop Charles Henry Brent who served the people of the Philippines from 1901 until 1918, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you…”[5]

Finally, the third way in which we come to know God is through prayer.  Not the sort of prayer that includes the laundry list of things we’d like God to do for us, but rather the type of prayer that feels more like a conversation with an old friend; prayer that includes a great deal of listening.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this is, for me, the hardest part of getting to know God.  I’m a doer.  My mind is always whirling around with items on my to-do list or sermon ideas or random television trivia, and it is really difficult for me to just stop and listen for that still small voice of God.  Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of ways to chill-out and listen: centering prayer, prayer beads, meditation, and found very little success.  Instead, I’ve found God’s voice is most active when there is silence in the midst of corporate worship.  Those fifteen seconds after the sermon and before the creed that get glossed over at 9 o’clock, I’ve come to know more about God there.  The sometimes interminably long silence before the confession, I’ve come to understand what God desires of me there.  The quiet that follows the distribution of communion, God has revealed himself to me there.  It doesn’t work the same way for everyone, but I’m certain that God will find a way to help you come to know him better through prayer.

“This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “to know God and his Son whom he sent.”  Knowing is a whole lot more than half the battle, it is the whole enchilada, and it is a gift given to us by sheer grace.  Of course, like all relationships, this one takes some work, but I promise you, study, service, and prayer are nothing compared to the glory that is eternal life in God.  Amen.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe#Cartoon

[2] http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/s7x099/all-gi-joe-psas

[3] Collect for Easter 5, note on date from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 182

[4] http://gsntv.com/shows/the-american-bible-challenge/

[5] Third Prayer for Mission, note on date and authorship from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 128.

Knowing God is eternal life?!?

Two weeks ago, we heard this prayer as our Collect for the Week:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus say this in the midst of his High Priestly Prayer:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

And I’m thinking a lot this week about how different the 21st century American version of the Christian faith would be if we really believed that knowing God was eternal life.  It is almost impossible to fathom.  We’re so inculturated by the Enlightenment that knowledge has become either an object of worship or something to be scorned.  We’ve lost the sense of truly knowing someone: intimately, deeply, carefully.  That, and we’re obsessed with visions of the afterlife in books like “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is for Real” that we can’t think beyond how heaven will just be a like a much longer, cooler, life-like experience: like the best virtual reality has to offer.

But what if eternal life is nothing like that?  What if, as Bruce Milne and NT Wright have both said, eternal life isn’t about quantity of life but quality of life?  And what if that quality of life is simply the overwhelming love that comes from a deep knowledge of God?

Honestly, if I hadn’t just recently given some real thought to the Easter 5 Collect, I probably wouldn’t be so hung up on this, but here I am, at 4:30 on Thursday, when my sermon is supposed to be in the books, still pondering how to preach this paradigm shifting statement by Jesus.

Lord, is this (finally) the time?

I had the distinct pleasure of substitute teaching Father Keith’s Wednesday morning Bible Study today.  Our assigned topic in his Eastertide study of Encounters with the Resurrected Jesus was the ascension story; a timely topic what with tomorrow being the feast day that bears that name.  His title for the study was the question of the two men robed in white from Luke’s version of the story in Acts (a portion of which is also assigned for Sunday), “why are you standing there?”  But I think I’m in agreement with the Sermon Brainwave crew when, back in 2011, they suggested the key question in this text is “Lord, is this the time?”

The disciples had followed Jesus to the precipice of Hell and back.  They had heard him teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  They had seen him exert supernatural control over wind and water, illness and demons, even life and death.  They had marched into Jerusalem with him ready to take on the world, watched him toss the tables in the Temple and get in the theological grill of the religious powers-that-be, and declare that the whole thing would come tumbling down while he would build it back up.  They were ready for him to flex his muscles and restore all things to their rightful place when they watched with horror as he stood silent before his accusers, admonished them to put away their swords, collapsed in exhaustion under the weight of his cross, and died pathetic and naked hanging from a tree.  They had been to the bottom of the pit and had sunk in the miry clay, when lo and behold, he was back.  He had conquered death!

After 40 days of hanging out in and around Jerusalem.  After hearing him continue to teach about the Kingdom and its politics.  After watching him disappear from their sight in Emmaus and reappear in the middle of an upper room in Jerusalem.  After a miraculous catch of fish and delicious fire baked breakfast. After all of that, they were ready for him to do what they still fully expected him to do – put his boot on the neck of Pax Romana and restore the Kingdom and lineage of David.

Lord, is this [finally] the time!?!?!

You can hear the desperation in their voice, and feel the sinking feeling when he responds essentially by saying, “Nope.  Not yet.”

We do not know the day or the hour.  Trying to pinpoint the time and the place and what series of construction projects will bring Jesus back is absolutely pointless.  What matters is how they, how we, take all that stuff that Jesus taught and that stuff that Jesus did and work toward bringing the Kingdom to earth in the meantime.  Now certainly is the time for that.

Say Farewell to the Farewell Discourse

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of the Gospel according to Saint John as anyone else, but as we arrive on our third week of the Easter season in the rambling prose of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, I’m ready to say adios to it.

As is always the case with John’s Gospel, there are several nuggets worth digging for in Sunday’s pericope.  First, since this is the Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Ascension, the preacher could spend some time unpacking John’s understanding of Jesus’ glorification; dealing especially with John’s view of the cross as Jesus true ascension.  The problem there, of course, is the strong temptation to turn your Sunday sermon into a theology paper, which is deadly to preacher and congregation alike.  The second possible preaching path is also fraught with danger because Jesus’ one-sided conversation with his Father about the disciples begins to sound awfully predestinationy.  As one who is apt to get too heady with his sermons, I’m not even going to start thinking about this possible path.  So, then, we have the third option, dealing with Jesus’ prayer that we might be one.

This is one of those Gospel messages that is easier said than done.  It is simple for the preacher to stand in the pulpit and describe the perfect vision of the Church Universal, one flock with one shepherd, but the reality is quite different.  Just a few minutes ago, a member of the Centennial Committee for the City of Foley was here to pick up some historical information about Saint Paul’s.  They are working to put together a notebook of the oldest congregations in town, of which Saint Paul’s is one.  In fact, she said there were something like 15 congregations in Foley that are older than 50 years old and 36 (thirty-six!!!!!) churches in the Foley city limits.  36!  That is a lot more than one, and the City of Foley is just a microcosm of the rest of the world, where the trappings of religious expression have long since surpassed theology for the reason for denominational squabbling.

Jesus’ prayer for unity is a dangerous message to preach this week, but it is probably the safest of the rest of our passage from his Farewell Discourse.  What are you going to preach this week?