One Heart, One Soul

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, September 16, 2012, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.   And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.   Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)      

     In the book of Acts we have many kinds of miracles described.  We find people being healed of terrible diseases and afflictions.   We read of miraculous deliverances from prison.   But I believe that Acts 4:32 describes the greatest of the signs and wonders.  We are told that the members of the Church were of one heart and of one soul.   Is it really possible that a group of diverse people could so unified, so united in love and purpose, that they could be described as having one heart and one soul?

     I have been a member of churches all my life, but I have seen few churches that I would describe as having one heart and one soul.  I ama great skeptic when it comes to the Church as far as this issue of unity is concerned.  I love the church, but I’m a cynic when it comes to the issue of achieving any kind of unity in the church.  If it were not for the prayer of our Lord Jesus that we might be one, I would not believe it to be possible.

     I believe in the possibility of unity in many other institutions.  I think it might be possible to have unity in the business world, maybe in sports, maybe in politics, divided as those endeavors are.  But when I think of unity in the Church, I want to exclaim, “Impossible!”   Periodically, articles are published in various newspapers and magazines that show that the Church is losing so many members.    It is sad, but I think to a large degree we have brought this on ourselves.  What people want to join an organization that is filled with more feuding and fighting?   We say that we are the solution to all the war, all the fighting in the world, but when people come to our churches, they find the same quarreling, the same pettiness.  No wonder people don’t want to be a part of the Church.

     As I look at this description of the early Church, “of one heart and of one soul,” I ask, “Is it really possible?”   It happened here in the book of Acts.   Notice that it was not just two or three people who had this kind of unity.   Our text says that the “multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.   We’re not talking about unity among 20, 30, 200, or 300 people.    In the book of Acts thousands of people who were of one heart, one soul. 

     They were unified in the opposite way that we achieve unity in the Church today.   We achieve unity by dividing down into smaller and smaller groups, until we can finally meet with those two or three people who think exactly as we do, who are as perfect as we are.   But here we find, not unity by division, but unity my multiplication.   The more they grew, the more unified they were.  Can we ever achieve this kind of unity again?   Before we answer that question, we need to see what it means to be on one heart and one soul.

     When Luke used the word “heart,” he was talking about the reason, the emotions, and the will.   These early Christians were unified in their thinking and their emotions.   Then, Luke adds the word “soul”, “psuche” which is translated sometimes as “life,”  or sometimes “mind.”  Someone has defined it as “the life spirit” in a person.   Their very lives were one.   They were so unified in life in purpose that they didn’t even consider their possessions to belong to themselves.   They looked at their brothers and sisters in Christ and said, “What I own if just as much yours as it is mine, and if you are in need, what I have is yours, because we are one, just the way husband and wife share all things in common.”   What a beautiful description of Church unity!

     But sadly, as we read through the pages of the New Testament, we find that something happened to destroy that unity.   The people of God were divided, and it seems that they have been divided ever since and are becoming more and more divided.

     What is it that destroys this unity of heart and soul?  As you look through the pages of the New Testament,  you will find descriptions of the kinds of sins that destroy Church unity.   The first one is the sin of following men, rather than following Christ.   One of the most divided churches that we read of in the New Testament was the church at Corinth.  There were many reasons for their division, but one of them was dividing into factions based on their favorite teachers.  In I Cor. 1:11-13, Paul describes their worship of men in this way:   “For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.   Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.  Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?”   There are four factions listed in this church.  One group said, “I am follower of Paul.”  Another group said, “I am a follower of Apollos.”   Another, “I am a disciple of Peter.”  And then, another group, probably the “super-spiritual group” said, “I am a follower of Christ.   We don’t listen to Peter, Paul, or Apollos.   We just go by what Jesus said.”  That kind of religion still exists among us today.   Christ is not the focus.   People have their favorite and preachers and theologians, and their devotion to these men and their favorite systematic theology leads to a party spirit.  Doing so is evidence of being controlled by our corrupt nature.  St. Paul admonishes these Christians, “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?  Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?  I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.   So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (I Cor. 3:4-7).   St. Paul is saying, “Get your minds off Apollos and Paul.   Who are these men?  They are just servants of the same Lord Jesus Christ.   Don’t serve these preachers.   Serve the Christ that they serve.”

     The second sin that divides the Church is the desire to control the Church, wanting to Lord it over everyone else and have our own way in the church.   We could call this desire, “The Diotrophes Syndrome.”   In the little book of 3 John, we find a man named Diotrophes who was causing a great deal of problems in the church.   St. John described him in this way:  “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not.   Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church” (3 John 9-10).   Diotrophes loves to be first, to be in charge, to have the authority, and if he doesn’t like someone, he just kicks them out of the church.  There are those, like Diotrophes, who love to have the preeminence.  I wasn’t in the pastorate very long before I realized that many people feel like a church exists for one reason.   The church was not a place for them to worship God and serve others.  It was a place for them to show off –a place where they could have some authority.   Because of these kinds of people, church can become dangerous places.   Maybe a man is neglected at home or on the job, but he views the church as the one place in the world where he can be the big shot.   If his power is threatened, watch out!   All kinds of divisions begin to take place.   Paul describes the basic attitude of people who cause this kind of trouble when he says, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil. 2:21).  These people are not in the church to further the cause of Christ.   They come so that they can have a platform to control other people’s lives.   They are powerless everywhere else, and the local church is the one place where they can exercise some power.    This desire for power within the church ultimately divides the church.

      Then, another sin that divides the Church is one of the most simple—some people can’t get along with one another.   They begin to quarrel, and the first thing you know, the whole church is choosing sides.   We have an example of this kind of fighting in Philippians 4:2-3: “I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.   And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.”   Now, I know it’s difficult to believe that there were two women in this church who couldn’t get along, but there it is—probably the only time it ever happened in the history of the New Testament church!    But notice that St. Paul says that these two women were not of the same mind.   In other words, they were not  of one heart and one soul.  Notice that St. Paul highly respected these two women.   He says that they had labored together with him in the gospel, and now they are acting this way, not being of the same mind.  Many a church has been split into pieces and destroyed simply because two people couldn’t get along.

     People have different personalities.   Some of us rub one another the wrong way.   Sometimes we say and do things to hurt one another.   It’s so easy to divide a church today just on this basis.   Just pit two people against one another and before long the whole church will be in an uproar.   The devil doesn’t usually have to get involved.   We have enough jealousy and pettiness in our own hearts to ensure that there will never be any unity in our churches, but if the devil does become active, there will be some real fireworks.

     There aren’t many churches I know of in America that could stand a satanic assault on the unity of the church.   It is so easy to divide us.  Believe me, I know.   The unity in any local church is so fragile, it only takes about five seconds to permanently destroy it.   It is only by the grace of God that there are any churches at all.   One of my favorite Stephen King movies is based on his novel, Needful Things.   There is a character in the film called Mr. Gaunt, who is obviously the devil, and he comes to turn the people of a whole town against one another.  He does it so easily.   He just plants a few thoughts in the heads of a few people.  Before you know it, the whole town explodes with anger and violence, and when the turmoil breaks out, they show Mr. Gaunt, played wonderfully by Max von Sydow, sitting quietly in his room, and he says, “We’re having fun now.”  Satan must say that continually in the average church:  “We’re having fun now!”   As I said, the devil usually doesn’t have to get involved.   There is enough corruption in our own hearts to cause people to be constantly at odds with one another.   The devil doesn’t have to do anything, but if a congregation begins to make strides in the Lord’s work, Satan feels he had better stop it, and he doesn’t have put forth much effort.  

     The next sin that destroy unity in the Church is constant complaining by busybodies.   In Philippians 2:14, St. Paul writes, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings.”   In our Sunday School class we have laughed about the some of the printer’s mistakes made in the King James Version down through the years, like “the Wicked Bible,” which said, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”   I am quite sure that in some people’s Bibles, Phil. 2:14 reads, “Do all things with murmurings and disputings,” because that  is the commandment people obey with a zeal that borders on religious fanaticism.   

            Have you noticed how much we murmur and complain?   America is a complaining society.  That is why all the talk shows and reality TV shows are so popular—they provide a place for people to complain.    Our churches are complaint departments.    Most of the complaining in a church is about matters that amount to nothing.   There are many important issues in a church, but we complain about the insignificant and trivial.   To be of one heart and one soul, we must not give in to this attitude of being filled with complaints.

     Then, unity is destroyed by a refusal to be submissive to those who have God-given authority in the church.   We all say that we will be submissive to those whom God has placed in authority, but what we really mean is, “I will be submissive until I disagree with them.”  An attitude of submissiveness is key to being of one heart, one soul.   St. Paul writes in I Thess. 5:14, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” Unruliness destroys the unity of the Church.   No organization can function without authority.   It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about government, business, family, or the church, prideful anarchy will destroy unity.

     Finally, heresy destroys the unity of the church.  For this reason, we labor so much in the word of God in this church.  We must never allow false doctrine to infiltrate our ranks.  In our time, some Christians seem to think that the key to unity is not having dogmatic beliefs.   Well, we have tried that approach for over 100 years now.  How unified does the Church look?   In the true Church of Jesus Christ, it is truth that unites us.  Nothing destroys unity in the Church quicker than false doctrine. 

            We have seen how this characteristic of being of one heart and one soul can be destroyed.   Is it possible to ever get back to this kind of unity and singleness of purpose that we find in Acts 4?  It is possible if we realize that this kind of unity is a miracle produced by the Holy Spirit.   That is why I started out by saying that this verse, Acts 4:32, describes a miracle.  By nature we are prone to divisions.  The Apostle Paul wrote in Gal. 5:19-21, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,  Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,  Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”  Notice those words, “hatred, variance, wrath, seditions, heresies, envying.”  By nature, those are the things we love.  We are naturally prone to divisions, to all the things I have just been speaking of this morning.   But that should not be true if you are a Christian.  You are not in the flesh; you are not dominated by your sinful nature.   You are in the Spirit.   Your characteristics are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,  meekness and temperance.  If people in the Church were really characterized by those things, being one heart and one soul would be natural.  It is the Holy Spirit who does this supernatural miracle of making us one.   In I Cor. 12:12-13, St. Paul writes, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”  When we were baptized, we were baptized by the Holy Spirit into this one body.  Because we are one body, look at the effect:  “And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor. 12:26).  Since the Holy Spirit has baptized us into the Church, we are so much one heart, one soul, that when one member suffers, we all suffer, and when one member is honored, we all rejoice, rather than being filled with envy and jealousy. 

      Though unity in the Church seems such an impossibility, our unity is based on solid foundation.  In Ephesians 4:4-16, we read, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism,  One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”   We believe in one Lord, one Lord Jesus Christ.   We have one faith, that we confess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.  We believe in the same Lord Jesus Christ.   We are saved in the same way.   We believe the same basic doctrines of the Christian faith.  We even have one baptism.   And we have one God who is in us all.   How could we not have unity when all that is true of us?

            Furthermore, we are united in one common purpose.   We are here to worship God, to spread the gospel of Christ, and to grow people to maturity.  Why isn’t that enough to unify us? Why do we allow ourselves to be distracted and divided?   If these things I have described are true of us, how could we ever allow insignificant personal differences and squabbles divide us?   We must repent of these sins that I mentioned earlier that cause us to forget that we are one.

            To really move forward in the Lord’s work, we must be of one heart and one soul.  We will never be like this church, until we have one mission, one mission so strong, one mission which so captivates us that we march together to spread the gospel..  Let us pray each day, “Lord, let it be said of our churches that we are truly of one heart and one soul.”  Amen.


Throwing Our Lives Away

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, March 18, 2012, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.   And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.   He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 10:37-39). 

         Dr. Fred Craddock, who was Professor Emeritus of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology, said that when he was a little boy he would imagine what it would be like to die for Christ. He said that he heard so many preachers give illustrations about the great heroes of the Christian faith, especially the martyrs, that he thought that giving your life in such a way was the only way to give your life for Christ’s sake. He says that he could imagine himself standing before the firing squad, being given one last chance to recant, but he would bravely say, “No.” The general would cry “Fire!” The body would slump over in a heroic death scene, and years later youth groups from churches all around the world would visit the spot, and wipe their tears away as they remembered how he gave his life for Christ. And Dr. Craddock says that he was so disappointed that he thought he would have to wait many years for such a time–that there was no way to live his life for Christ right now.

         We often think martyrdom is the only way to lose our lives for Christ. Many Christians have been called upon to give their lives in that fashion. When Christ calls a person to follow him, he does say that you must be willing to die for him.   That is the cost of discipleship.  Jesus calls us upon to lose our lives for his sake.   Jesus used this saying in several different contexts.  For example, in Matthew 16:25 if, he said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.” In this passage, Christ makes it clear that losing your life is not an optional matter as far as the Christian life is concerned. If you save your life, you lose your soul.  You will stand before the judgment bar of God and have to say that you considered your own life more important than following Christ.

        Our Lord teaches us that obedience to him is far more important than our physical lives.  We must remember that there is a natural life and a spiritual life. There is a temporal life and an eternal life. Our great temptation is to preserve our natural lives, our physical, our temporal lives, at all costs, even if it means forfeiting spiritual life. The person who tries to save his life will lose both his physical and spiritual life. Oh, you might save your natural life for a while, but you are only delaying what in inevitable. Eventually, you are going to lose this life no matter how much try to preserve it. But if you preserve this life rather than taking the cross, ultimately, you will lose both. You will die physically and spiritually.  To save your life means to draw back from the sacrifice required.

        While martyrdom may be the ultimate price, our Lord has far more than that in mind when talks about saving our lives and losing our lives.   Saving our lives is not just recanting or denying Christ in order to save ourselves.   Saving our lives just means living a self-centered life. Saving our lives is living our lives in any other way than following Christ at all costs. Even a life devoted to our families, more than Christ, can be saving our lives. If you cling to any part of your life, wife, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, you lose your life. Preferring any part of our lives to what Christ calls us to do is saving our lives.

        This taking up of the the cross is not something that we do at the end of life. Taking up the cross is something that we do at the beginning of the Christian experience. Taking up the cross is what we do daily. Every day, we put our lives into God’s hands, and say, “Today, I am a disciple of Christ, no matter the cost.”   Such a life may end in martyrdom, but whether it does or not, the Christian has already lost his life, because it no longer belongs to him. No doubt, that is what our Lord had in mind when he said, He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. When, our Lord uses the word “life” here, he probably means “self” for the words life and self seemed to be used interchangeably in these sayings. For example, if you compare the very similar saying in Luke 9:23 -24, you find, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.” To lose your life, means to deny yourself. Jesus is saying, “When it comes to a choice between your own selfish desires and what I want you to do, you must deny yourself, even if that means physical death.” But don’t confine this teaching to physical death. Every day of the Christian life is a denying of self to follow Jesus Christ. You are turning your back on selfish desires, and choosing to live for Christ instead.  These are the words of our Lord that we especially have in mind during the season of Lent.   We are denying ourselves certain pleasures in order that we might concentrate on the meaning of this season, to remind us to spend time in prayer, examine ourselves ,and repent.   Denying ourselves during Lent is a symbol of the self-sacrifice that Christ demands of us each day.

        We really shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus makes this kind of statement. To be great at anything calls upon a person to deny himself and his own pleasures for a greater or loftier purpose or goal. Since the claims of Jesus Christ are so much greater than anything else which could command our devotion, why shouldn’t we be willing to make any sacrifice necessary for Christ, to live holy lives, to be conformed to his image?

        A few years ago I was reading about some of the finalists in the Van Cliburn piano competition. One of them said that he practiced all day, just taking a few minutes out for meals. Another said he was not quite that dedicated. He only practiced between six and nine hours a day. Can you imagine all the ways in which they had to deny themselves? Think of how many times they had to say, “No,” to friends, to their own desires to watch television, or movies. They had to say goodbye to it.   But the sacrifice was worth.   Now, they are at the top of their craft. You might look at them and say, “They threw their lives away.” In a sense, they did, but most of them will probably tell you, “Actually, through all that sacrifice,I found my life.”   I remember on one of the Carpenter’s albums was a song called “Piano Picker,” and in that song Richard Carpenter describes how he learned to play the piano so well.  He says that while other guys were out playing football or running around with the girlfriends, he was home “bangin’ on the keys.”  Yes, he had to forego some of the pleasures that other people experience, but look at the rewards and dividends of denying himself those pleasures to give himself to something greater.  He found his life, a life of music, by losing his life, by denying himself.

            Finding ourselves by denying ourselves is infinitely truer of the Christian.  He finds his life by giving himself to Christ completely.  When deciding to follow Jesus, the person must decide between a life of selfish indulgence or a life of sacrificial love. Sacrificial love means you lose yourself, but in the long-run, you find yourself.

        Nowadays, one of the most popular phrases we use of people goes something like, “Well, he is just trying to find himself.” We excuse a lot of sinful behavior with that phrase. People say, “I don’t know who or what I am. I don’t know my identity.   I’m just trying to find myself.”  We are so obsessed with this notion of finding ourselves, so we set out on the journey. We say, “I am going to find myself.” But the more we try to find ourselves, the further we get away from ourselves. The search ends in confusion and frustration. Jesus had a solution:   “Do you want to find yourself? Lose yourself!”  Some people come to church hoping that they can find themselves.   It is not our duty to help people find themselves. Our duty is to help them lose themselves.

        The word translated here as “lose” is word that is hard to put in English. It is something like “destroy.” Someone has translated it, “throw away.” Jesus is asking us to throw away our lives.  Many people think that Christians are throwing their lives away.  Perhaps the Christian shows promise in a self-centered life. He gives it up to follow Christ.  People say, “You are throwing your life away.” The Christian says, “Exactly!”  It is interesting, too, that this word is not a present participle.  It is an aorist, meaning something like, “and he who has destroyed.” A decision has been made, one for all, a final decision, to throw your life away.

        The truth of the matter is, everybody throws his life away for something. We look at our children when they won’t listen, they go the way of the world, waste their potential, and we say, “You are just throwing your life away.” And it’s true. By living for themselves they are throwing their lives away. But you know, we want them to throw their lives away.  We want them to throw their lives away in service to Christ and other people. If you throw your life away living for yourself, you will lose everything, but if you throw your life away for Christ’s sake, you gain everything.

        An amazing thing happens when you live Christ and others instead of yourself.    You find, looking back, that your life has been full. You find you are happy after all. The happiest people in the world are not those people who are trying to make themselves happy. The happiest people in the world are those who have forgotten their own personal desires and follow a cause they believe to be more important their own lives, than their own pleasures.

        Jesus Christ is calling us to forget ourselves and live for him.  Jesus promises us that if your chief love is anything but him, you lose everything. As Frederick Dale Brunner says, “Preaching that is devoted mainly to helping people ‘make it,’ helping them find themselves, giving them spiritual and psychological tips on how to be a success, how to have peace of mind, how to love oneself, how to be a transformed person, and the rest is often rank betrayal. It is teaching people to concentrate on the very matters Jesus wants them to forget.”

        Brunner’s is an interesting commentary, because almost all preaching today concentrates on these things. Ministries that emphasize healing are so successful, because people are concerned primarily about their health, living a long life. We hear people say, “If you have your health, you have everything.” Jesus says, “No you don’t.”   You can be very healthy and have nothing in your healthy life that has any real value and meaning.  Why do you think the prosperity gospel is so popular?  What are Americans obsessed with more than anything else?   They are obsessed with money and success. They spend all their time thinking about themselves.  So many other forms of preaching in our day are so popular:   “Christ and your problems;” “How to achieve psychological well-being through Christ.”  But this emphasis reflects a preoccupation with the self. If  you will notice, the most unhappy people in the world are those who are always thinking about themselves, their problems, and their own happiness. Jesus is a master psychologist in this sense.  He tells us to forget about ourselves.  Lose your life.

        Even our spiritual quest can take on these selfish characteristics. So many people have just traded the latest pop psychology or self-help technique to give Christianity a try, to see if Jesus will help more than the last self-help book they read, but it is still the same old self-centered preoccupation with their own happiness and well-being. We go around evaluating ourselves and taking our spiritual temperature. Am I hot, or cold? Do I feel close to God, or far away? Maybe if I spent more time in prayer, Bible study, and doing good works, I would feel better; I would feel closer to God. We become cloistered, separated from others, trying to get that ultimate spiritual high that will make us feel good about ourselves, but that kind of life is still the old, selfish, self-centered life. We’ve just given it a spiritual twist.

        It may sound strange after everything I have just said, but there is a reward for losing your life.   What I have said would seem to suggest that we shouldn’t even be concerned about rewards.   Isn’t seeking a reward a selfish motive?   Certainly, our chief motivation is not the reward. What we do, we do for Jesus’ sake, but then, an odd thing happens. We find that after we have thrown our lives away for Jesus’ sake, we actually find our lives. Jesus gives us a wonderful promise. We might be tempted to give a tearful farewell to the world. “Oh, there goes my life. I’m sure going to miss it. That is where I would rather be, living in the world, having a good time, enjoying the pleasures of sin, but I gave it all up to follow Christ.” But Jesus promises us that if we will give up our sinful, selfish, self-centered desires, that we will actually find ourselves. We will actually begin to really live. You see, we look at the pleasures of sin, at the pleasures of a self-centered life and we think, “Ah, there–that is real life.” But we soon find that such a life is all illusion. We find that it is in reality a living death. The only person who really knows what life is about is the person who turns his back on his self-centered life.

        The surest way to lose your life is to try to hang on to it.  We say this all the time about athletes.   The surest way to get hurt in athletic completion is by trying not to get hurt.   The minute you start worrying about getting hurt, you will, because you are concentrating on that rather than the game.  In like manner, the surest way to lose happiness is to be so obsessed with keeping it. Take for example, the person whose only interest is staying alive. We think of someone like a Howard Hughes who was reported to have been so obsessed with just staying alive, that he locked himself in a room. He sterilized everything.  He ate with surgical gloves, and lived in that room under those conditions trying to prevent himself from getting sick and dying.  If those reports are true, would anyone in their right mind really call that existence living?  We see so many people who are hypochondriacs. Their greatest passion in life is avoiding sickness and living for a long time, but in that effort, they are always checking themselves, always worrying about themselves, and while they doing all of this checking and worrying, life passes them by.

        The same is true of the person who is self-centered, thinking only of himself and his own wishes and desires. We live in the most narcissistic of times.  We use the term narcissist now to describe the person who is totally absorbed only in himself. The sad thing about the narcissist is that while he is staring at himself, preoccupied with himself, all of life passes by, and he never sees it. We live in an era when living sacrificially for the sake of others is frowned upon, while living for your own self is the chief of virtues. This is one of the main reasons for our high divorce rates.   A person thinks, “The bottom line, the most important thing in the world is my life and my happiness. What is important is what I want to do with MY life. I want to be rich.   I will neglect my wife, my children,  or whatever I need to neglect. I want to be famous. I want to have pleasure, and if my family suffers for it, fine. If my church suffers for it, so be it.”   Eventually, toward the end of life, the person will look at everything he had, the wealth, the fame, the honors, the riches, the pleasures, and he will see them for what they really are—a vapor.   Then, he will think back on the times he could have spent serving his wife, his family, his community, his church, and he will realize that he didn’t really live at all. The things that really make life full and abundant passed him by while he was pursuing his own selfish dreams.  

        The other night we were reading Thoreau’s Walden.  Thoreau tells us why he went to live in the woods.  He wrote, “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”  I don’t think Thoreau went about his quest in the right way, but every person should have that desire.   We don’t want to come to the end of our lives and discover that we have not lived.   If we live only for the pleasures and glory of this world, we will discover that we never really lived.

        We see such a man in Solomon, don’t we.?“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed all is vanity and grasping for wind” (Eccl. 1:14). “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11). There is the testimony of the man who has lived for selfish pleasures. He didn’t find his life. He lost it.  One of the reasons we have so much depression in our own time is this obsession with self.  The selfish life always ends in sadness and depression, because we realize we have invested our lives in those things that never can satisfy us.

        You see, when Jesus says, “Lose your life,” we are tempted to think, “Oh, no how painful. How awful”. But after we lose our lives, live for others instead of ourselves, live for Christ instead of ourselves, we realize that losing our lives was the most wonderful thing that we could have ever done, because it is in losing your life that you really find it.

        Some of you remember the old Charles Aznavour song,  “Yesterday When I Was Young.” It is a song of regret about the way the person has lived his life. One of his chief regrets is that he lived his life selfishly. He says, “And ev’ry conversation I can now recall/Concerned itself with me, and nothing else at all.” That sentiment expresses the end of a life lived for self, but the person who lives for a more noble purpose than himself obtains a greater reward.

        In Buttrick’s commentary on Matthew, he reminds us of the scene in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King where Galahad walks toward the Perilous Seat.  The Perilous Seat was reserved for the knight who would one day find the Holy Grail.   Anyone who wasn’t pure and noble would die if he sat in it.   In Tennyson’s version, Merlin says, “For there no man can sit but he should lose himself.  ” And Galahad says, “If I lose myself, I save myself.”   Then he takes the vows of a knight of the Round Table. The knights lift their swords and make the sign of the cross. Then, Galahad begins the search for the Holy Grail.   Galahad has it right.  If you lose yourself, you save yourself for you find the key to what life is all about.

        Jesus calls us, not to find the Holy Grail, but to something far better:  the  prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.   You don’t have to wait until the last moment of your life, facing a firing squad to lose your life. You lose your life, when you stop living for yourself.   Jesus invites us to follow him.   To do so, you must lose yourself, for what Christ calls us to is not a life of ease, self-indulgence, and safety. He calls us to a life of discipline, hard work, sacrifices, and danger–the very things we emphasize during this season of Lent.   Only a person who has thrown his life away by saying “good-bye” to himself and his own selfish desires can take up such a life.

        In the church where I grew up, we used to sing a hymn entitled, “Give of Your Best to the Master.”   It was primarily a song for youth, but it had the lines:

Give of your best to the Master;
Give of the strength of your youth;
Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.
Jesus has set the example,
Dauntless was He, young and brave;
Give Him your loyal devotion;
Give Him the best that you have.

We don’t often think of Jesus being young. After all, in his time,  many people didn’t make it to age 33.  Nevertheless,  some people did live into their 80s and beyond. Jesus could have used the excuse, “I am in the prime of my life. I am still young—too young to die in this way.   But he was willing to throw his life away for our sakes. When Isaac Watts wrote, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” he didn’t originally write it the way we have it in our hymnals. Originally he wrote, “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the YOUNG prince of glory died.” Young people, I remind you, the young prince of glory died for you. Now, will throw your lives away for him?” Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor into the battle for truth.  Let us all throw our lives away, denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following him.   Only then will we experience life in all its fullness.  Amen.

Celebrating the Saints and Special Holy Days

The Month of March

March 9— Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, 394

Gregory was born around 334.  He was the younger brother of Basil the Great.  After the deaths of Basil and his sister, Macrina, he devoted himself to more strenuous service and study.    His most famous works include, On the Making of Man, Life of Moses, Commentary on the Song of Songs, and his Great Catechism.  In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, he was honored as “the pillar of the Church.”  He fought valiantly for the Nicene faith.  He, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappdocian Fathers;

Scripture Reading:  John 14:23-26;

Collect—Almighty God, who hast revealed to thy Church thine eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons:  Give us grace that, like thy bishop Gregory of Nyssa, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who livest and reignest now and for ever.  Amen

March 17—Patrick, Bishop and missionary of Ireland, 461.

Patrick was born in 390 on the northwest coast of Britain.  His grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon.  When Patrick was 16, he was captured by slave-traders.  He was carried to Ireland and forced to work as a shepherd.  When he was 21, he escaped and returned to Britain.  He returned to Ireland in 431.  Patrick  spent the rest of his life converting the people of Ireland from pagan religions such as Druidism.  Men, get ready for our St. Patrick’s day celebration at our home where we will have some good Irish fellowship and a study of the life of Patrick;

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28:16-20;

Collect—Almighty God, who in thy providence didst choose thy servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of thee:  Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

March 18—Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, 386

Cyril was born around 315 and became bishop of Jerusalem in 349.  He is famous for his catechisms that he prepared for those who were awaiting baptism.  His five Mystagogical Catecheses on the Sacraments were composed for the newly baptized.  Cyril instituted the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 24:44-48;

Collect—Strengthen, O Lord, we beseech thee, the bishops of thy Church in the special calling to be teachers and ministers of the Sacraments, that they, like thy servant Cyril of Jerusalem, may effectively instruct thy people in Christian faith and practice; and that we, taught by them, may enter more fully into the celebration of the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

March 19 – Saint Joseph

It is often very easy for us to forget Joseph, but we see in the gospels what a loving husband he was to Mary, and no doubt, with what care he brought up Jesus in his household.  God communicated with Joseph in dreams and visions to protect the infant Jesus.  He was a descendant of David and worked diligently as a carpenter.  Although we know very little of him, we see in him the kind of quiet devotion which glorifies God;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 2:41-52;

Collect—O God, who from the family of thy servant David didst raise up Joseph to be the guardian of thy incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother:  Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to thy commands; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

March 25 – The Annunciation of Our Lord

This is the day we celebrate the coming of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, to announce that she would be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ.  So many paintings, songs, and poems have been devoted to the Annunciation.  You will notice that March 25 is nine months from December 25.  Today we marvel at Mary’s words, “Let it be to me according to thy word,” as she accepted both the shame and the blessedness that would come to her as a result of her obedience to God.  We also marvel once again at the mystery of the Incarnation, as the blessed God becomes incarnate in the child whom Mary conceives in her womb;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 1:26-38;

Collect—We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that we who have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen. 

March 31 – John Donne, Priest, 1631

John Donne is remembered primarily as a poet, but we often forget that he was an Anglican priest.  At some point in our education, we have probably read his poem, “Death, Be Not Proud,” or “Meditation 17,” with its immortal words, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:  It tolls for thee.” John Donne was born a Roman Catholic and was educated at Oxford and Cambridge.  King James I persuaded Donne to be ordained a priest in the Church of England.  He became the most popular preacher in England.  His sermons reveal that he was both a scholar and poet.  He was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London from 1622 until his death;

Scripture Reading:  Ps. 16:5-11;

Collect—Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being:  Open our eyes to see, with thy servant John Donne, that whatsoever hath any being is a mirror in which we may behold thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liverth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

Strength, Power, and Might

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 13, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.   Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.   For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.   Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  (Eph. 6:10-13) 

          What a wonderful thing it is to be strong!   When I was a boy, I went to see Paul Anderson who was billed as the strongest man in the world.  Some of his accomplishments were listed in Guinness Book of World Records.      I saw Paul Anderson in 1967, I think, and he performed all kinds of weightlifting feats, and then afterword preached a wonderful sermon on proofs of the Resurrection of Christ.  He was not only the world’s strongest man, but also an active witness for Christ.

We see weightlifters in the Olympics and wonder how they could get that strong.  Physical strength is a great blessing, and you don’t know what a blessing it is until you lose it.   Strength is necessary for so much of what we do.   We couldn’t go to work without strength.  We couldn’t engage in athletic competitions without strength.   Think of the various occupations that require great strength, such as construction workers, roofers, roughnecks, and pipefitters.

When we think of people who need great physical strength, soldiers come to mind.  When Paul thinks of the spiritual strength we need, it was only natural to think of soldiers.  The Christian is often portrayed in Scripture as a soldier.     We emphasize this aspect of the Christian life in our baptismal service.   The priest says,

We receive this Child (or person) into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.

When we are baptized, we are enlisted in the army of the Lord.

There are many kinds of soldiers in the world, but the Christian soldier requires more strength than any other person, for as St. Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood.”   We are fighting against principalities and powers.  We are wrestling with spiritual wickedness in high places.  In other words, the Christian is fighting against the forces of hell itself.   Looking at the powerful enemies we face, the apostle Paul looks at the Christian and says, “Be strong.”

Have you ever had someone tell you, “Be strong”?  Most of the time, don’t you hate it when people tell you that?   Usually people say that to you when you are facing some kind of trial or difficulty in your life.   You are dealing with grief,  you are facing a surgery and you are scared, or you have an illness, and it is weighing you down and people say rather flippantly, “Well, you have to be strong.”   You want to reply, “Yes, and I’d like to see you be strong if you were going through what I’m going through.”  You want to say, “I know I have to be strong.  I want to be strong, but the question is, ‘How can I be strong in the face of this difficulty’?”  When we are facing the great battles of life, and when we are facing the great temptations in life, how are we to be strong, especially during those times when you feel your weakest?

This command, “to be strong,” comes to many of God’s people throughout Scripture.   When Joshua was about to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God told him,

Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them.  Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.   This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.  (Joshua 1:6-9)

Three times in those 4 verses, the Lord tells Joshua, “Be strong.”   When we think of soldiers and great military leaders in the Bible, we most often think of Joshua.   He was the one who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.   He was the one who led the people into battle against insurmountable forces.   Perhaps, as he stood on the borders of the Promised Land, he began to wonder, “Can I do this?  Can I really lead these people into this land where there are so many powerful enemies?”  Perhaps he was having doubts.   Why else would the Lord tell him three times, “Be strong”? He must have needed the encouragement.  God may have been saying, “Yes, there are great battles ahead, great enemies to face, but you must be strong.”

The Lord says the same thing to us.   He tells us that we have many battles to face.   We have many spiritual enemies who want to destroy our souls.  They are going to come against us like a flood.   We are going to be tempted to disobey the Lord, the temptations are going to be strong, and we are going to feel as though we are powerless to resist.   We are going to face trials in our lives,  and when those trials come, these forces of hell are going to tempt us to doubt the love and mercy of God, perhaps to even doubt his very existence.   Then, one day, we are going to face death.  We may as well get used to it.   The Christian life is one battle after the other.   There will never be a time when we can put down our swords and take off our armor. We are going to get tired in the conflict, but the Lord comes to us and says, “Be strong.”

This command that God gave to Joshua to be strong is one that keeps being repeated in Scripture.   In the book of Joshua, there is the story of how Joshua captured those five kings hiding in the cave of Makkedah, and we are told Joshua “called for all the men of Israel, and said unto the captains of the men of war which went with him, Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings. And they came near, and put their feet upon the necks of them.   And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the LORD do to all your enemies against whom ye fight” (Joshua 10:24-25).   You see that Joshua is telling his men the same thing that God had told him:  “Be strong and of good courage.”   If you are, you will be able to put your feet on the necks of all your enemies.

In the book of I Chronicles, David is giving his charge to Solomon to build the temple, the house of the Lord, and he uses these words again that God spoke to Joshua:   “Now, my son, the LORD be with thee; and prosper thou, and build the house of the LORD thy God, as he hath said of thee.  Only the LORD give thee wisdom and understanding, and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the LORD thy God.   Then shalt thou prosper, if thou takest heed to fulfil the statutes and judgments which the LORD charged Moses with concerning Israel: be strong, and of good courage; dread not, nor be dismayed”  (I Chron. 22:11-13) .   Then,in chapter 28, David speaks again to Solomon, and we read, “And David said to Solomon his son, Be strong and of good courage, and do it: fear not, nor be dismayed: for the LORD God, even my God, will be with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, until thou hast finished all the work for the service of the house of the LORD” (I Chron. 28:20).

In the New Testament, we have this same command, “Be strong.”  We have it here in Ephesians 6, and we read it again in I Cor. 16:13, where St. Paul writes, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.”  Paul tells Timothy, “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.  Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 2:1-3).   We need strength if we are going to bear the difficulties a soldier must face.

On this past Friday, we celebrated Veteran’s Day, and we gave thanks for all the people who have served their country, and who are serving our country.   Some gave their lives in various wars to preserve our freedoms.   Some survived and live on.   But whether they lived or died, the one thing they had in common was that they had to endure hardness.   It’s not easy being a soldier.   My wife and I were watching a program the other night that described some of the living conditions that soldiers and sailors have to endure.   I don’t think I could endure three days on one of those ships, much less three months.   Because of Tom Brokaw’s book, we now often refer to that WWII generation as “the greatest generation.”   They knew how to endure hardness.   They knew how to be strong.  I don’t know what kind of generation the people of the future will call us.  We may be regarded as “the weakest generation,” because we have been so pampered that we don’t know how to endure hardness.

It is difficult for us to be strong.  Yet,  the Christian is called upon to face life’s toughest battles, and, like the wimps we often are, we say, “I can’t endure this.  I could handle anything but this.”  Still, the command still comes to us, “Be strong.”

How can we be strong in life’s most trying moments?  There are some people who just seem to have a natural ability to be able to face anything.  But usually, no matter how much a person may have this natural fortitude, things often arise where our natural abilities, or our natural strength of mind, fail us.  In these spiritual battles we face, we have no natural strength to be able to endure these things.  You make a great mistake if you think that you can face the forces of hell with your own will power.  When these forces of spiritual wickedness come at us with temptations, doubts, fears, we cannot fight them in our own strength.  They are simply too powerful for us.   But St. Paul gives us the key to victory in this verse:  “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”   The first key to being strong in the spiritual battle is to realize how weak you are and how dependent you are upon the might and power of God.  You can have strength, and you can have might, but to face these battles, it must be his strength and his might.

Three words are used in that short verse that give us the hope of victory in all our spiritual battles:  strength, power, and might.   But strength, power, and might come from the Lord.  If we have his strength, power and might, there is no force we cannot conquer, no trial we cannot endure, and no temptation we cannot subdue.

How do we obtain this strength, this power, this might?   If you are a Christian, it is already at your disposal.    St. Peter writes, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Peter 1:3).    We have already have all things we need to live a godly life, so we already have strength, power, and might, but we don’t access these resources that God has bestowed upon us.  Let’s take a man who is a real couch potato.   He does nothing but sit all day and watch sitcoms and sporting events.  Then, he complains about how weak he is, and how he has shortness of breath and tires so quickly.   He is probably weak because of his inactivity.  If he got  off the couch and worked out, he would find he was getting stronger day by day

Christians complain that they are weak, but are they?  The strength, the power, the might are there at our disposal.  We simply refuse to believe it is there.   Yet, hasn’t God given us evidence throughout our lives that it is there.   Many of you have been through very trying and difficult times, and you probably said,  “I don’t have the strength to get through this.”   But you did.  Wasn’t that the strength, the power, and the might of God working in you, showing you that you could do things that you thought were impossible?

How do we access this strength, power, and might? God has given us all the means of grace to help us acquire these resources.  The first, of course, is prayer.   Prayer is a recognition that we are dependent on God.   Prayer is an expression of real humility, for it is an admission, “I cannot face this on my own.”  It is an incredible moment in a Christian’s life when he fully realizes how dependent he is on God.   Many people seem to never realize it, but for many, there comes that moment when you go to your knees and confess, “Lord, I  cannot endure these struggles unless you give me strength.” Then, that wonderful, miraculous thing does happen:—strength is given.

Then,  the word of God is a means of grace to strengthen us.  If you want strength, power, and might, you must immerse yourself in Scripture, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.   As you absorb God’s word into your heart and mind, your faith is increased.  It is by faith that we access this strength, power, and might.   It is there for us, but we need the faith to believe it, and that faith is increased as we study the word of God.   Remember how St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith.   God made to him a promise that  seemed to be impossible  to fulfill.  God promised him that he would only have a son, but also that he would become the father of many nations.   St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith in this manner:  “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:   He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;  And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21).     This is the faith we must have.   We must be strong in faith, believing the promises of God, and when we truly believe them, we will  have strength, power, and might,  and we will not stagger, even during the onslaught of our mightiest enemies.

Then, there is this sacrament of Holy Communion to strengthen us.   For us, it is more than a memorial.   We really expect, when we partake of these elements, that strength, power, and might will be imparted to us.   There is no one time experience whereby we are given all the strength, power, and might that we will need for the rest of our lives.   It is given to us as we need it, and it is communicated to us through the normal use of the means of grace:  worship, preaching, Bible study, prayer, and the sacraments.  We are here on this day to worship God, but we are also here to receive strength, power, and might.

Yes, we face great and powerful enemies, but we must be strong in the Lord.   In II Chronicles  32 we have the story of how the king of Assyria, Sennacherib,  was about to conquer Judah and Jerusalem when Hezekiah was king.   The Assyrians had the greatest military might in the world at that time.   Their cruelty was legendary, and the whole world was afraid of them, but  Hezekiah goes to the people and he says, “Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him:  With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah” (II Chron. 32:7-8).  There we find the key to strength, power, and might.   The military might of Jerusalem was no match for the Assyrians, but Hezekiah says, “There be more with us than with him.”  The Lord is with us, and will fight our battles.   No matter what battles we face, always remember that God is greater, far more powerful than any force that comes against you.   If you stand in his strength, you cannot be defeated.   We are told that the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah.   Isn’t that beautiful?   Oh, that we could do the same.   We have a whole book of promises telling us this same truth over and over.   No matter what you are facing, God is with you.  God will give you strength.  He will fight your battles.   If we only had faith to believe it to be so, we could rest on his word and find peace, knowing that we will have the strength, power, and might to face whatever might come at us in this life, for it is the strength, power, and might of God himself.   Amen.


The Master Who Serves

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 6, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning;  And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. (Luke 12:35-37)           

          When I was a boy, we used to open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve at the home of my grandparents.  I would be so excited, waiting for that time when I could finally open the gifts, but we had to wait until all the members of the family had arrived.   When someone would knock on the door, I would run to the door and open it, hoping it would be that last group of family members who had finally come.

On the other side of the family, I had an aunt who had four children.   Whenever the older sister came home for the weekend, she always brought gifts and surprises for her little brother and sister.  I can remember how every time there was a knock on the door, my cousins would run to the door, and swing it open, hoping that she would be standing there.

We all know what it is like to wait expectantly for someone.    In this passage we have just read, we find our Lord telling a story of some servants who are waiting for their master to return.   He is at his wedding feast where he is celebrating with his new bride, and he will soon come home, so the servants are busy in the household, trying to get everything ready for his return.   Our Lord is using the slave/master relationship that would exist in a Roman household as the basis of this parable, but there is no doubt that he wants us to interpret this parable as saying something about our relationship to him.  He is our master, we are his servants, and we are awaiting his return.  The point of the story is that we must be ready, but it is interesting in this parable how our Lord subverts what we would think of as the normal master/slave relationship.

The first thing we notice about this relationship is that the servants seem to really love their master, and they want to please him very much.   Normally, in a master/slave relationship, the slave would be afraid of the master, and would perform his duties only out of fear.   In this parable, it seems that these servants really yearn for their master to return.  They keep watching, even if he delays his coming for a long time.  Even if his return is not until far into the night, they keep watching, waiting, keeping themselves in a constant state of readiness, because they lovingly expect his return.    The same is true of our relationship to our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.  We are not serving him because we fear what he might do to us if we are not ready.  Rather, we want to be ready for his return because we love him so much.  When we think of what our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ has done, how he left heavenly glory and came to this earth, how he lived a life of service and sacrifice, and how he suffered the cruel indignities and death of the cross for our sakes, we can’t help but want to see him face to face.  The coming of our Lord is not something that we dread or fear.  Rather, this Second Advent is looked forward to just as you look forward to hearing that knock on the door of the loved one you have been expecting for so long.

`           We can only look forward to his coming if we are ready for it.   Our Lord begins the parable with idea of our loins being girded and our lamps burning.   We must be prepared for his coming.   All of you know what it is like to be expecting company, and you are not ready.   If someone has told you when they are about to arrive, you have one eye on all your duties and the other eye on the clock.     You may be worried that the meal you are preparing is not going to be ready on time, or you may be worried that the house is not neat enough.  If you hear that knock on the door, or the doorbell ring, and you are not ready, you start throwing things anywhere you can hide them.  Dirty dishes go in the dishwasher, clothes are thrown into a room, and everything is stashed away as quickly as possible.  The guests may be left standing at the door for a while as you put everything away.   You will notice in this parable  that when the master knocks on the door, they open to him immediately.  Opening the door immediately indicates how glad they are to see him, but it also demonstrates that they are ready.  Nothing has been left undone.  Everything has been prepared for his return.

The way we are prepared for our Master’s return is by having placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.   If we are believers in Christ, we know that our sins have been forgiven, and we know that we can stand before him without fear.  Also, we want to be prepared in the sense that we have done what our Lord has commanded us to do.  We have been living in obedience to him.  We have been letting our lights shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven.   It is a wonderful thing to meet the Lord knowing that you are ready.  If the Lord should come for us at death, or if we meet him when he returns again, let us be ready.  In one sense, the fear of death has been removed from the Christian, for at death, it is as though the Lord is knocking at the door.    If we are ready, we can run and open immediately, knowing that we are prepared.   Whether the Lord comes for us at death, or if we are alive when he returns, let us be so ready, that we will run to the door, open immediately with full assurance that we have done our duty.

Our Lord further subverts the master/slave relationship in this parable by telling us what the master does when he walks into the house.  All of us have an image in our minds of what it would have been like when the master would have arrived.   We would expect the master to barely notice the servants.   Probably, he wouldn’t even acknowledge their presence or speak to them except to bark out a few orders.   Then, we can see him going to the table loaded down with food that his servants have prepared.   He would take a seat, expect water and wine to be brought to him, the various courses of the meal served, and all of his wishes and desires would be carried out by these servants.  But you notice that in this parable, the master comes in and serves the servants.    We are told, “He shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.”   That action probably never happened in the Roman household, but this is the way it is in the house of God.  In this parable, not only are the servants glad to see the master, but the master is happy to see the servants.  He appreciates all the work and effort  they have put forth.  He shows them how much he loves them by asking them to sit at the table, and he serves them.

What a beautiful picture of our Lord Jesus Christ!  He is our Lord and Master, but he is so frequently presented as the servant.  In an incredible act of condescension, when we die, or when he returns, Christ is going to serve us.  He doesn’t treat us as servants, but as friends, even joint heirs.   This is almost too much for us to handle.    That Christ would serve us is an idea that is almost too much for us to comprehend, isn’t it?  Something about it doesn’t seem right.  Now we understand why Peter objected so strongly when Jesus was about to wash his feet.  Surely it should be the other way around.  We must wash his feet, with our tears even.  Nevertheless, our Lord delights to describe himself as the servant of his people, especially serving them in the context of a banquet.     For this reason, heaven is often described as a feast to which we have been invited, and then Christ himself becomes the servant, and gives his people all the blessings which he has prepared for them throughout the eternal ages.    We should not be surprised that Christ would serve us.  When he came into this world, he came as a servant.  Remember how St. Paul said, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  (Phil. 2:5-8)

He came into this world as a servant, the suffering servant.    Just before our Lord instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion, he took a towel, girded himself, just as the parable here describes it, and washed the feet of his disciples.    Though now he has been exalted to the heights of glory, when he comes for us, he will still take the form of a servant and serve his people whom he has saved.

This sacrament of Holy Communion is a foretaste of that time when our Lord will arise and serve us.  When you are kneeling here, receiving the sacrament, Christ is serving you.  Don’t think of me as the one who is serving you.  We pray after the Communion, “ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.”   In the sacrament, Christ comes to us and gives us his own body to eat and his own blood to drink.   He is still among as the one who serves.  After he instituted the Lord’s Supper, the disciples began to argue about which one of them was the greatest, and our Lord said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.   But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.  For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:25-27).    It is in this sacrament that Christ serves us, and in heaven, this glorious feast will continue.  Here, we must leave the table, but there will come a day when we will be seated at his table evermore.

At this time of year, the season of All Saints, we especially remember those who have gone on to be with the Lord.   We are never nearer to those who have gone on before than when we celebrate Holy Communion.  When the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” we are transported into the heavenly realms with angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone on before.  In these moments, we are seated at the table with them, enjoying communion with Christ, and our Master arises and serves his people.  Those who have gone on before are enjoying communion with him in a way that we cannot describe, but as we participate here, we do have  a glimpse, just a foretaste, of what the saints experience moment by moment.  As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, and he girds himself and serves us, let us look forward to that time, when we will hear that knock on the door.  Let us be ready for it, and then be ready to open.   Three times in this passage our Lord uses the word “blessed”, meaning “happy,”  “ privileged,’ or “to be envied.” There is no greater blessedness than to be ready for his coming, and to know that Christ will gird himself and serve his people.  Amen.

The Simple Law of Love

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana


 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.   Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?   Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.   This is the first and great commandment.   And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:34-40)


          If you have ever tried to help children with their homework, you know what a difficult task it can be.  You can go over and over the same principles with them, and sometimes it seems that they will never get it straight.  You often look at them and say, “This is not that hard.”  When you help them with math problems, for example, they often come up with all kinds of complicated steps and procedures trying to find the answer, and you look at them and say, “You are making this more difficult than it really is.”   But we often make that same statement to all kinds of people.  “You are making this more difficult than it really is.  My wife has always laughed at how I do household chores the hard way.  I’ll be doing a very simple job around the house, making it very difficult, and she will walk by and say, “Why don’t you just do it like this?”  Then, I’ll stand back and say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”  We often say the same thing about our relationships with one another.  Employers and employees have difficult relationships.  Friends, even in churches, have problems with one another.  Husbands and wives have issues in their relationships.  We are left with the impression that life is very complicated, and our relationships with one another are complex.  Often, when we aren’t getting along with one another, don’t we step back and say, “We are making this harder than it should be.”  The Eagles had a song back in the 70s called “I Can’t Tell You Why,” about lovers having a difficult time with one another, trying to figure out what’s going wrong in their relationship, and there is the line, “We make it harder than it has to be.”

In other words, we shouldn’t be having this much difficulty getting along.  There’s nothing wrong.  We’re just making it harder than it has to be, and I don’t know why we are making it this difficult.  Today, I am going to make the same statement about the Christian life.  We make it harder than it has to be.

In this familiar passage of Scripture, the Pharisees are putting questions to Jesus.  They are testing him, trying to trip him up, to see if they can get him to give what they would consider to be a wrong response.  One of these Pharisees is called a lawyer, but don’t think of that word “lawyer” in the way we think of it.  This man is not an attorney.  This was a man who was an expert in the Law of Moses, one who spent most of his time probably arguing or debating about whether or not a certain action was sinful, or whether a certain action was a violation of the Law of Moses.    This expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus a question, which was a hotly debated topic, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”  Think of all the laws that Moses gave the people.  Read Exodus–Deuteronomy and read all those laws.  There are laws about moral and immoral behavior, laws about how the community should function legally and the various punishments.  There are laws about all the sacrifices.   Then, we have to remember all the interpretations of the Law that had been handed down as traditions from one generation to another.  There were so many laws to sift through to find the most important one.   Everyone is wondering how Jesus will respond.  What is the greatest, most important commandment?  Is it “Thou shalt not kill”?   Is it, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?   Jesus goes through all the Law, and he doesn’t merely pick a commandment.   He chooses a commandment that summarizes all the other commandments.  He says what we say here every Sunday morning at the beginning of our service:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”  Jesus adds to that one a second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neigh as thyself.”  Then, he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Jesus has summarized what we sometimes refer to as the two tables of the Law as we find it in the Ten Commandments.  The first four describe our duties toward God, and the remaining six describe our duties toward one another.  If you want to boil all the commandments down to one simple rule, it would be “love.” If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, then you will have no other gods before him, you won’t make a graven image, you won’t take his name in vain, and you will remember the Sabbath day.  If you love others, then you will honor your father and mother, you won’t kill, you won’t commit adultery, you won’t steal, you won’t lie, and you won’t covet.  St. Paul summarizes the law in the same way.  In Romans 13 he writes, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.   For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).   If you want a general principle about how to live your life, it’s not difficult to find it:  love God, and love one another.

You may be asking, “Are you saying that it is really that simple?”  Yes, I am.  If it is that simple, then why is it so difficult to love God and my neighbor?  It is difficult because we make it harder than it has to be.  We deliberately make it complicated.  Sin has made everything so complex.  It should not be difficult to obey either one of these commandments.  It should not be difficult to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  When you go through the Scriptures, and see how God is described in all his glory, majesty, and beauty, why should it be difficult to love God?   When you consider all that he has given us, why should we find it difficult to love him?   The Psalmist wrote in the 103rd Psalm:  “Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1-2).    Then the Psalmist begins to list all the benefits we have received from God.  He forgives all your sin, heals all your diseases, saves your life from destruction, showers his lovinkindness and tender mercies all around you, he satisfies you with good things, and renews your strength.   He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.  He has separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, and he pities us like a father pities his children.  It shouldn’t be difficult to love a God like that.    We make it harder than it has to be.   Why do we make this so hard?  Unlike The Eagles, “I can tell you why.”  It is sin that blinds us to all these benefits we have received.  Sin blinds us so that we cannot see God’s glory, majesty, and goodness.   Sin causes us to focus on the things of the world and the miseries in the world, and we forget all the goodness and mercy of God.

Just as it shouldn’t be difficult to love God, it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbor.  You may be saying, “You don’t know my neighbor.”  Remember, that I am talking about more than your next door neighbor.  We are talking about all people.  Everyone is your neighbor.  You may wonder, “How can you possibly say, ‘It is not difficult to love everyone.’”  Let us remember that we are speaking of love in the Biblical sense.  The command is not that you must “like” your neighbor.  You may not like another person at all.  You may not like their personality or their lifestyle.  There may be very much in your neighbor of which you rightly disapprove.  But remember how St. Paul defines loving your neighbor as doing no harm to your neighbor.  In other words, loving your neighbor simply means doing no harm to him, when he needs help, help him if you can, and to desire what is best for him, both temporally and spiritually.  For this reason, it shouldn’t be difficult to love your neighbor.  What good ever comes from hating your neighbor?  What good ever comes from disobeying one of these laws that has to do with our relationships to others?  What good comes from murdering another human being?  What good comes from sexual immorality?  What good comes from stealing?  What good comes from lying about another person?  What good comes from coveting what belongs to someone else?  Nothing good comes from those actions, but we can say that most of the misery and heartbreak in the world comes from doing those very things.  We should pick up our newspapers every day and read all these stories of war, murder, and theft, and realize that all this has come about because people do harm to their neighbors.  What kind of world would this be if we did no harm to our neighbors?  All of this trouble and misery has come about because of hatred, greed, and not being content with the blessings God has given us.  For this reason I say it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbors, because not loving them is the source of most of the pain and suffering in the world.  We should look at this simple commandment and say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we loved one another?” Again, sin has complicated these issues.   Sin causes us to hate one another.  It is sin that causes us to desire what belongs to another person.  It is sin that has caused us to actually take delight in the suffering of other human beings.  It is sin that causes us to find a way around this command to love one another, and justify our hatred and cruelty toward other people.

We make this harder than it has to be.  God’s commandments are pretty simple, but we make them complicated so that we can get around obeying them.   We want to find the loophole.  Let me give you a good example that our Lord ran into time and again.  The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.    Six days shalt thou labor, and do all that thou has to do, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.  In it thou shalt do no manner of work…”  That seems like a simple commandment.   But the question arises, “What is work?” Down through the centuries, the Jews had accumulated thousands of rules and regulations about what was work, and had even gotten to the place where they said that healing someone on the Sabbath was work.  Jesus kept telling them that showing mercy was more important than rules and regulations about how to keep the Sabbath.  As you know, the Puritans did the same thing, devising long lists about what was a violation of the Sabbath day.  Those of us who have tried in times past to observe the Puritan Sabbath know how complicated that can get.  Is it a violation of the Sabbath to eat at a restaurant, watch a ball game, play sports, go fishing, or use electricity?  When you make all these rules , the Sabbath does become a burden rather than a delight.  One of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is simple.  If you go through our Prayer Book, can you find anything here about how we should observe the Sabbath?  Several times in the Prayer Book we have a discussion about the Ten Commandments.  Do you find there a list of do’s and don’ts about the Sabbath?  If you want to follow along, look on page 288 of the Book of Common Prayer, and you will find how our offices of instruction summarize the first four commandments.   You will notice how commandments 1, 2, 3, and 4 are summarized.  How do we obey the first two commandments? Obedience to these two commandments means to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, and to call upon him.  To obey the third commandment means to honor God’s holy Name and his word.   What does it mean to obey the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?  The Prayer Book says that to obey this commandment means to serve God truly all the days of my life.  The first time I read that I said, “What?”  I was expecting a long list of what to do and what not to do on the Sabbath, and all we get is, “Serve him truly all the days of my life.”   Then, if you want to look at some of the others, like the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” we are told that obedience to his commandment means, “To hurt nobody by word or deed:  to bear no malice or hatred in my heart.”  That sounds simple enough.

Now, turn over to page 291 of the Book of Common Prayer.   You find the question, “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church? Answer.  My bound bounden duty is to follow Christ, worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.”  Your duty to the church is summarized in to those three duties.   Again, there is no long list about what to do on the Sabbath, except, “worship God in his church every Sunday.”

But we are determined to make these commandments complicated.  You remember one of the accounts when this issue of  loving our neighbors came up.  We are told, “And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?   He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?  And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.  And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.  (Luke 10:25-28).   The lawyer knew the correct answer.   Love God, and love your neighbor.  But what does the lawyer do next?   He’s going to make it complicated, for we read in verse 29, “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”  We have a simple commandment:  Love your neighbor.   But we are going to complicate that commandment by asking, “Who is my neighbor?  Is it the person next door?  Is an ungodly man my neighbor?  Are the Gentiles my neighbors?  Are those racially mixed, heretical Samaritans my neighbor? The lawyer is doing what we all do. We complicate it so that we can find a way around obeying it.  It’s complicated, it’s difficult, because sin has corrupted our hearts, and we make complicated something that we really know the answer to already.   We just don’t want to admit that we already know what we should do.  In I Thess. 4:9, St. Paul said, “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.”  We would have expected Paul to go into some long, elaborate explanation on this theme about what brotherly love means.   We would expect him to explain, “Who is your brother?  What does it mean to love your brother?”  St. Paul doesn’t complicate this issue.  He says, “I don’t have to write to you about brotherly love, because God has already taught you what this means.”

If you look at the history of the Christian faith, you would get the impression that the Christian life is really complicated.  How many thousands of books have been written about how to live the Christian life?  Every day it seems that someone comes out with a new book, and they have found the key.  They have found the answer.  Have you ever wondered how people learned to live the Christian life before the invention of the printing press?   Think of it, there were Christians thriving in the world 1400 years before the printing press arrived, and most of them were illiterate.  They must have been terrible Christians, not being able to read the next best seller on the Christian market.  If we could be transported back in time we would probably be shocked at how little they actually knew.  I suppose they were all terrible failures as Christians.  But I wonder if they knew how to love God and how to love their neighbors without all the hundreds of books that have to go into so much detail about how to do that?  I’ll bet they did, because God has already done what is necessary to help us love in this way.

The first thing God did was send his Son into the world, and Jesus showed us what love is.  He went about doing good, he healed the sick, he had compassion on those who were suffering, and he gave himself sacrificially on the cross.   We already know from his example what love is.  He told us that he had given us this example of love so that we should love one another in that way.  He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).  He goes on to say, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).    When John is writing his little epistle of I John he says, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.  For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (I John 3:10-11).   John reminds them that when he was setting down for them the basic truths about the Christian life, one of the first things he taught them was to love one another.  It should be simple, but it’s difficult for us because of the sin that is in our hearts.

To help us to love one another, God gave us the Holy Spirit.  As we yield to the Holy Spirit, we love as Christ loved for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  Remember that when St. Paul described the fruit of the Spirit, the first characteristic of that fruit is “love.”  In these days when there is so much talk about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, we forget that the primary reason the Holy Spirit is given to us is to give the power to love as Christ loved.  You remember in I Corinthians, St. Paul is dealing with the problem of spiritual gifts in Corinth, and they are fighting about tongues, miracles, healing, and prophesy.   Paul deals with all of those issues and then says, “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.”  The more excellent way was “love.”  Paul tells them that they are concerned with spiritual gifts, but the most important thing is love.   Look at that passage in its context, and I will substitute the word “love” for “charity,” because the Greek word used here for love is “agape.”  “…And yet show I unto you a more excellent way.   Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.   And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing….  And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 12:31; I Cor. 13:1-3, 13).    Love is the greatest of all gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to us.

Love God, and love your neighbor.  Those two commands are complicated only because we allow the sin in our hearts to complicate them.  But the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, to cleanse our hearts of the hatred and bitterness people feel toward one another.  He gave us his Holy Spirit to place this love in our hearts, for the promise of the New Covenant was, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:34).  Christ came to give us new hearts, and in these new hearts he would write his law.  That simple law is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.”  Amen.

Power in Prayer

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.   Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:   And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.   Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.   Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.  And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.  (James 5:13-18) 

Not long after I started preaching, I began reading biographies of great preachers and missionaries of the past.  I enjoyed reading about all the wonderful things they did for the Lord, but I was particularly drawn to those biographies about Christians who had the reputation for being mighty in prayer.  I read of the way God answered their prayers in such remarkable ways.  I read about how John Wesley and George Whitefield spent so much time in prayer.  I read about the prayer-filled lives of people such as David Brainerd, Edward Payson, known as “Praying Payson of Portland.”  I read of the amazing prayer lives of people such as John Hyde (“Praying Hyde”), George Mueller, and Rees Howells.    Then, later in life I discovered the biographies of those before the Reformation who were known for their great prayer lives.  I read of all the desert saints and how they withdrew from the world to give themselves totally to prayer.  I read of those who entered very strict monasteries so that they could devote their entire lives to prayer.  I read of Eastern Orthodox saints who lived either in monasteries or as hermits in the forest so that they could do nothing but pray.

If you read enough of those kinds of books, you may begin to develop an idea that the secret to success in prayer is simply time.    It seemed to me that the more time you spend in prayer, the more likely it is that your prayers will be answered, and the more likely it will be that you will see the miraculous begin to happen.  In the early days of my ministry, I wasn’t seeing these great and wonderful works, so I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t spending enough time in prayer.  I read somewhere that John Wesley used to get up at 4:00 A. M. and spend four hours in prayer before he began to do anything else.    So, I started getting up at 4:00 A. M. to pray,  and the result was that it made me too sleepy to do any of my other ministerial duties during the day.    Still throughout my life, and this may be true of you as well, I had these nagging doubts that my prayers were not powerful with God simply because I didn’t spend enough time in prayer.  You may begin to think that the ordinary Christian, the one who has to go to work every day, the mother who has to take care of a husband and children and tend to all the other duties that she may have to do, will never really be mighty in prayer because they will never have the time that is necessary to devote to prayer.

If God has called a person to spend a great deal of time in prayer, and the circumstances of life permit them to do so, there is nothing wrong with  such a life of devtion.  We find instances in Scripture where our Lord continued all night in prayer, but that doesn’t seem to have been a normal occurrence.  We find people like Anna, a widow, who had the time to serve God day and night with prayers.  But when you go through Scripture, do you really find many instances of people who on a daily basis set aside these huge blocks of time for prayer?    Most of the people in the Bible were people like you and me.   They had jobs, and they had numerous other responsibilities that took up most of their days and nights.  There is no command in Scripture that says you must spend at least four hours a day, withdrawn from the world, praying in your closet.   There is no threat that if you do not spend that much time locked away in prayer, your supplications will not be heard.

In this epistle, James writes about prayer, and he is especially concerned about praying for the sick.    In the context of talking about praying for the sick, he makes a statement about prayer in general.  He says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, or as the New International Version has it, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”  James doesn’t say that the prayer of a person who spends at least four hours a day in prayer is powerful and effective.  Such prayers may be powerful, but if they are, it is not because there is some kind of reward from God for having spent that much time in prayer.  God is not saying, “Well, I see you spent your four hours in prayer.  That’s pretty impressive.  I guess I’ll have to give you what you want.”  There is no time requirement.  We simply read that the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

I hope to encourage you by showing that you can be mighty in prayer.  As a matter of fact, if you are a Christian, whether you realize it or not, you are already mighty in prayer.  You can see God answer your prayers in amazing ways even though you don’t spend a great deal of time alone in prayer.  You may be looking at me and asking, “If it’s not the amount of time in prayer that is the secret of success, then what is?  I don’t seem to see God answer my prayers in the same way that some of these people you mentioned did, so if it’s not time, then I must not be fulfilling some other qualification to be mighty in prayer.”

Trying to find the answer to such questions, we look at James 5:16 and we see that word “fervent.”  James says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.  We tend to draw the conclusion, “That’s the problem.  I’m not fervent enough.”     So, we start trying to work up fervency.  We think the key to success is that our prayers have to show a great deal of emotion.  Have you ever been in a prayer meeting where you saw people trying to work up fervency?  Sometimes they try to work it up with music.   They think that if they get the music going loud enough, sentimental enough, get those emotions flowing, then the prayers will be fervent.  Sometimes people confuse fervency with loudness.  They think that if they pray loudly, they must be praying fervently.   In this attempt to get our prayers answered, we work on the fervency, maybe shed a few tears, and get up from our knees and say, “How was that Lord?  Was that fervent enough?”  We must think that the Lord shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.  That was pretty weak.  I’ve seen you more fervent at football games, so I don’t know if that amount of fervency you just showed measures up.”

There is nothing wrong with fervency in prayer.  As a matter of fact, when we read many of the prayers in the Bible, we see that they were often offered with great fervency and emotion.  There will be times, depending on the occasion, when your prayers may be accompanied with tears, and if you are in pain, either physically or mentally, you may pray loudly.  But the fervency will not arise because you deliberately tried to pray fervently.  Such fervency flows naturally from the emotions and circumstances of the moment.  Just as an aside, let me say something about our Book of Common Prayer.  Many people don’t think that we Anglicans pray fervently because we pray from a book.    First, we don’t pray only from a book.  We know how to pray extemporaneous prayers and cry out to God just like as other Christian does.  We know how to offer fervent prayers without a book, but we also know how to offer fervent prayers from the Prayer Book.    As a matter of fact, many Anglicans find that praying from the Prayer Book actually adds fervor to the prayers, rather than diminishing it, for we are liberated from having to search for words.  Furthermore, by using the Prayer Book we are assured that we are praying prayers that are in accordance with Scripture and the will of God.  As far as fervency goes, just get sick or have some crisis come into your life, and see if you can’t pray those prayers from the Prayer Book with fervency.    When you are in pain, physically or mentally, praying from the Prayer Book in no way diminishes fervency.  But whether we are praying from a book or praying our own words, we make a mistake when we equate fervency with strong, outward emotion.  A simple prayer, sincerely offered, with no great emotion, is still a fervent prayer.

I read a moment ago from the New International Version, and it translates this verse the way most modern translations have it. The word “fervent” does not modify the word prayer.  The word “fervent” is a word that simply means “working.”  It is the word from which we get our word “energy.”  Listen to these more modern translations:  “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV).  “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working” (ASV).    “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV).    This word “fervent” does not describe you in the act of prayer.   Rather, it describes the power of the prayer as it is it working.   It is not you being fervent, but the result of the prayer that is fervent.  Let’s say you are praying for a sick person.  This verse does not say that you are fervently praying for a sick person.  It is saying that after you pray, the result of the prayer in the life of the person you prayed for will be fervent—it will work powerfully, energetically in that person.  Again, I am saying this to encourage you.  Don’t think that you have to get all worked up emotionally for your prayers to be answered.  God does not answer your prayers because you get sufficiently emotional.  Sincerity in prayer is fervency enough.

Then, you may ask, “What is the requirement that I need to meet so that I can see God answer my prayers in a mighty way.”  Let’s look again at what James said:  “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  You may think that the problem is that you are not righteous enough.   Before you draw that conclusion, let us examine what the Bible means when it speaks of a righteous person.   Does it mean that the person is sinless?  If the requirement for getting our prayers answered is that we must be sinless, then no one would ever have a prayer answered.  As we go through the Scriptures, we find God answering the prayers of his people, but were any of them perfect?  Were any of them sinless?  Did God answer the prayers of Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Peter, and Paul because they were sinless?   We know that they were sinners as we all are.  We know that in the Biblical sense, we are made righteous only through faith in Jesus Christ.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then God has given you the righteousness of Christ.  You are considered a righteous person because of what Christ has done for you, not because of what you have done.  Of course, we need to be careful not to draw the dangerous conclusion that we can live in rebellion against God and still expect to have our prayers answered.  The Christian is someone who has received the righteousness of Christ by faith, and that person is striving to live in conformity with the commands of Christ.  Occasionally, he fails, but just because he fails does not mean he is not a righteous person.  In the Biblical sense, a righteous person is someone who has faith in Christ and is striving to live in obedience to Christ.   If you are a Christian, you are a righteous person,  and your prayers are powerful.

To clinch this argument, James uses the example of Elijah.  You are probably looking at me and saying, “If I had any hope of getting my prayers answered, you just destroyed it.   I thought I could be mighty in prayer, and now you tell me that the example I should look to is Elijah.  I’m no Elijah.  I mean, if you are going to encourage me to pray, couldn’t you pick somebody I could remotely resemble and say, ‘Well, if he got his prayers answered, maybe I can, too.’ But Elijah?  Forget it.  I’ll never be like Elijah.”  But James is making the point that that Elijah was no different than you.  Notice how James puts it:   “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain : and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”  The New International Version has it, “Elijah was a man just like us.” The English Standard Version has it, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”  The argument is that Elijah was just like you, and he prayed and stopped the rain for three and a half years.  That’s powerful praying, but it was done by a man no different than you.  Elijah was a good and righteous man, but he was not a sinless man.    Yes, it is true that Elijah could defeat 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but when he hears that Jezebel is out to get him, he runs into the wilderness, sits under the juniper tree and says, “I’m the only good person left in the world.  Everybody else is an idolater.  Lord, just kill me.”  Does that sound like a perfect man of God?  It sounds like a little child full of self-pity, doesn’t it?  All these instances prove that Elijah was a man who sinned and had weaknesses just as we all do, but he could still get his prayers answered in a mighty way.  The same thing is true of all the other people in the Bible.  They had a nature just like ours.  They had failings and shortcomings, but God still answered their prayers.

The same thing is true of all those people you read about in the biographies I mentioned at the beginning of this message.  You have to be careful about  biographies about saints, because very often the biographers only tell you their good, godly qualities, but they don’t tell you of their failings.  You get the idea that they were perfect, and you say, “No wonder God answered their prayers.  They were so good.”  But I guarantee you that if you could go back in time and spend a week with these people, you would find that they were people with like passions as you.  If you could have spent a week with St. Francis of Assisi you would have been disillusioned, for you would have found that he too had his sins, his failings, and these great saints of the past would be the first to admit that to you.

You must get rid of this notion that maybe one day you will be good enough, one day you will be righteous enough, and then God will answer your prayers in a mighty way.  There’s a word for that kind of thinking—legalism.  In other words, you are thinking that God is going to answer your prayers as a reward for being so good.    Get that idea out of your head.  You are never going to be that good.  God does not answer our prayers because of our merits.  He answers our prayers out of his mercy.  He answers our prayers because we come to him through his Son.  Even our prayers have to be cleansed by our Mediator in order that they might be acceptable to God.    In our Communion service we pray, “We beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.”  The same thing is true of our prayers.  When we offer our prayers to God we say the same thing.  We say, “Don’t accept our prayers because of our merits.  We have no merits.   But pardon our offences and receive our prayers through Christ for what he has done.”  God answers our prayers because his Son is righteous, and we are in his Son.

I hope that today I have destroyed every excuse you have for believing that your prayers cannot be answered.  You should go away from this place believing that your prayers are a great force in this world.  There are no other requirements you need to fulfill.   You have been made righteous in Christ, and your prayers are powerful.  You may be asking, “If what you say is true, and I can have the same power in prayer as Elijah, why can’t I stop the rain for three and a half  years?”  Have you ever thought that perhaps God doesn’t want you to stop the rain for three and a half years?   I’m not saying that your prayers will be answered in the same way, with the same dramatic power that we find recorded in Scripture or in some of these biographies you read, but your prayers will accomplish what God wants your prayers to accomplish.  Keep praying.  Keep your Prayer Book handy.  Pray those prayers over and over again.  Pray for peace, for grace, for those in government, for clergy, for all sorts and conditions of men, for the church, for the unity of God’s people, for children, for the sick, and all the other many prayers that are in our Prayer Book.  And as you pray, believe.  Have faith that God will answer, for the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working.  Amen.