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Archive for August, 2009

Baptismal Sermon

This sermon was preached on August 29, 2009 by Father Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge.

The audio of sermon is here available.

Soon we will have the text uploaded here.

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Preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, on July 19, 2009

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The Marriage Supper of the Lamb

Rev. 19:9

            One of my great grandmothers was an old landmark Baptist, believing that only Baptist churches were true churches, only Baptist ministers were true ministers, and only Baptist ordinances were true ordinances.  She also never tired of telling people that the Baptist church was the bride of Christ.  She believed that people from other denominations could go to heaven, but they would only be invited guests at the marriage supper of the lamb, not part of the bride of Christ.

            In my early 20s, I had a pastor who believed in what is sometimes referred to as the “split-rapture” of the Church, a minority view even among premillennial dispsensationalists.  This pastor of mine taught that when the Church was raptured, only the faithful Christians would be caught away to participate in the marriage supper of the Lamb.  The bad Chrsitians, the carnal Christians would be left here on earth to go through the tribulation for seven years, and at the end of the seven years, they would be part of the millennial kingdom that Christ would set up here on earth.  I always thought this idea resembled a seven-year purgatory.  Since my pastor believed in once saved always saved, it seemed he had to find a way to punish those people who were saved, but who had not lived in obedience to Christ.  If you told him that you were willing to risk seven years of tribulation in exchange for a sinful life here on earth, he would say that he would rather miss heaven than miss the marriage supper of the Lamb.

            I could go on and on describing the various views concerning the marriage supper of the Lamb.  If you were to collect all of the commentaries on the book of Revelation and read all the discussions about Revelation 19, you would walk away dazed and dizzy by all the competing opinions.  Depending on whether the interpretations are preterist, historicist, futurist, premillennial, amillennial, or postmillennial, the explanations will differ concerning who is the bride, who are those called to the feast, and who are the guests.  Bible scholars are divided over when the events in Revelation 19 actually take place, or took place, as the case may be.  But in the history of the church, and within Anglicanism, there has been a long tradition of seeing Revelation 19 as an example of “the already” and the “not yet.”  The Church is already, now, the bride of Christ, but we have not yet experienced all the glories of that relationship that we will experience with our heavenly bridegroom when we enter into the eternal state.    Every time we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are attending the marriage supper of the Lamb, but we have not yet experienced the marriage supper with all of the glory that shall attend it when we eat and drink in his presence in heaven.  But every time we celebrate the marriage feast here, we have a foretaste of the marriage feast there.  Our celebration of the marriage feast here is as close as we can get to heaven while we are on this earth, for, as a matter of fact, when we say, Lift up your hearts, we are transported in a mystical way to the heavenly precincts,  and celebrate the marriage feast in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

        We need to enter fully into the realization that our Eucharistic feast is indeed the marriage supper of the Lamb.  Thomas Ken, one of the famous nonjuring bishops that Bishop Sutton mentioned yesterday,  wrote a book entitled, The Retired Christian Exercised in Divine Thoughts and Heavenly Meditations.  In that book, he has a meditation for the Eucharist and he writes, “Thou art invited, O my soul! to a royal banquet… It is the marriage-supper of the great King ; let us then get on the wedding-garment, that we may go out to meet the bridegroom of my soul.” One of the famous 18th century Anglican preachers was William Romaine.  In his book, The Life, the Walk, and the Triumph of Faith, he gives a meditation to be used after Communion which reads in part, “What an honour is it to be admitted to a feast instituted by the Lamb of God, and for the enjoyment of the love of God! What a blessing is it to sit down now to the marriage supper of the Lamb; and to partake by faith of its spiritual realities and delights! There is nothing beyond this upon earth; and it has sometimes been to the believing receiver a foretaste of heaven….

        Do we believe that each time we come here to partake of this Holy Eucharist that we are attending the marriage supper of the Lamb?    It shouldn’t be difficult for us to see how this sacrament is the marriage supper of the lamb and at the same time a foretaste of the heavenly marriage supper.  This sacrament is about union and communion.  What is a wedding but a celebration of union and communion, two becoming one?  Think of holy communion:   The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (I Cor. 10:16).  In Holy Communion we celebrate our union with Jesus Christ, that we become one body with him, that he might dwell in us, and we in him.  No wonder it is a wedding feast!  Do we have this sense that we are coming to the greatest feast that could ever be offered to us?  If not, then surely it is because we do not truly understand what Christ has done for us on the cross, and we do not understand the benefits that we receive from participating in this blessed sacrament.  

What could possibly compare with the benefits that we receive as a result of participating in this Holy Sacrament?  No wonder that our Lord said, in our gospel reading for today, “For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”  This is the real feast.  This is the real food and drink.  Everything else that we might try in this world to satisfy the longings of our souls, everything else that we might experience in this life in the attempt make us feel that we are truly alive, whether it is pleasure, wealth, or fame, is bound to leave us empty and dissatisfied.  On the other hand, Blessed are they, happy are they, who are invited, who are called to this supper, because this is where true happiness is, this is where true satisfaction is found.

In the past few weeks we have been reminded of how fleeting life is as heard of the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and even lesser known people such as the Oxyclean pitchman Billy Mays and the comedian Fred Travalena.  Whenever we hear of the deaths of such people, we often wonder if they were truly happy?  Did their wealth and their fame give them the satisfaction that they believed it would when they set out to pursue these things?  And in the final analysis, what were their lives all about?  What was the point? Whatever might have been true about the lives of these famous and wealthy people,  it is only those who know Christ who have found genuine life in all of its fullness.  And this is why we cherish this feast so much.  It is a means through which our union with Christ is nourished, nurtured, solidified, and as our union with him is strengthened, we have life indeed, because we partake of food and drink indeed.  What can satisfy us the way that this sacrament satisfies us?  This is the real food and drink.

            Last year at this conference, some of us were standing out in the parking lot, and we were trying to decide where we were going to eat supper.  Someone asked Fr. Brad Cunningham where he would like to eat, and he said anywhere was OK with him.  So someone suggested a restaurant and Brad said that that was not really one of his favorite places.  Then someone said, Well, there is a nice Mexican restaurant close by, and Fr. Brad said, “You know,  I don’t really care for Mexican food.”  So, someone said, “Well Brad, you pick the place.”  And he said, “No, anywhere’s fine with me.”  Finally, we decided on Pappadeaux’s and when we did, “Bishop Sutton looked at me said, “Pappadeaux’s must sound like heresy to you.”  And of course, he was right, but unlike Brad, I went along with it.  But I’m from Baton Rouge, and not only do we have numerous wonderful seafood restaurants in Baton Rouge, but I’m only 66 miles from New Orleans.  Pappadeux’s is OK, but it’s not Gallatoire’s,  or the Court of Two Sisters, Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s or even the Café des Amis in little Breaux Bridge.  Once you have feasted on real Cajun food, it is hard to be satisfied with the Yankee seafood in Dallas.  And once you have really feasted with Christ in his blessed sacrament, once you have known the intimacy of fellowship that we have with him at his marriage feast, then you know that there is nothing else in this world that could ever satisfy you.  You know the truth of his words in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life:  he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”  This feast becomes your joy here on earth and you live in joyful anticipation of that heavenly expression of this feast, where we will experience nothing more than the full satisfaction of his glorious presence and communion with him.   No wonder then we are told, “Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.   When we think of all the benefits that receive as we partake of Holy Communion, no wonder we would be described as the happy.  Who would not be happy to be invited to such a feast, happy to partake of the most delicious of all meals.

But there is another reason to be happy to attend such a feast.  If you look at the context of Revelation 19, it is not only a wedding feast, but also a victory feast.  Babylon, the great whore has fallen.  So in Revelation 19, there is a celebration of God’s judgments, a celebration of his power, the power to defeat all his enemies.   “Alleluia,” for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!”  What could be better than feast that is a victory celebration?

Some of you may not keep up with college baseball, but if you do, you know that LSU beat Texas to win the College World Series a couple of weeks ago.  Just thought I would mention that.  That was our sixth national baseball title.  LSU fans love to go to Omaha for the College World Series.  But do you know who loves for LSU to go to Omaha more than LSU fans?  The people of Omaha, because the people who own the restaurants and bars in Omaha know that nobody eats and drinks as much as 10,000 Cajuns.  Really, do you think the people of Omaha are pulling for Rice to get there?  But after LSU won the college world series on Wednesday there was a big celebration at Alex Box stadium the next day and the baseball team showed up with 3,000 of our fans for a victory celebration.  But wait, we had 9,000 fans in Omaha.  Where were they?  They were still in Omaha, eating and drinking.  They are probably still there, feasting on Longhorns, no doubt. 

What could be better than a wedding feast combined with a victory celebration; better yet, the celebration of a wedding that has come to pass because of a glorious victory.  For when we celebrate holy communion, we truly celebrate the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We celebrate his death, because he came into the word that through death, he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is the devil.   

Our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and he invites us to union and communion with him in order that we might share in his victory.  And this victory feast is only a foretaste of that victory feast when at last, death is swallowed up in victory, when death and hades are cast into the lake of fire, when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power, and every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the father.  We celebrate that victory now and look forward to that time when free from all taint of sin we can perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy name.

So, today, you are called to the marriage feast of the Lamb.  You don’t have to wait until death, until the second advent to experience the victorious celebration of the marriage feast of the lamb.  You are called to come now. 

you have this unspeakable privilege of hearing this call—come to the feast, come to the marriage.  Who could turn down the call to such a satisfying and joyful feast?

            And as we are refreshed, strengthened, and made joyful by this feast, it is then our duty to go into this world, into the highways and hedges, with the glorious invitation, come to the feast.  We go into this world with the good news, the good news that the Pharisees meant as a criticism of our Lord, This man receives sinners, and eateth with them.  What a joy to be ambassadors who carry about with them the greatest of all invitations, Come, for all things are now ready.  Christ is ready to receive you.  Christ invites you to his table.  Christ is ready to have fellowship with you now and throughout all eternity. 

He will give you genuine life for you will be united to him.  And when this life is over, all of the things which have caused us so much misery and pain, sin and death, will be trampled under his feet, never to rise again, and you will sing Alleluia, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth for ever and ever.  That is our message to the world.   Let us pray that every time we approach this table, it truly would be for us a feast, so powerful, so wonderful, that we would consider it our greatest joy and privilege to call others to the marriage supper of the Lamb. 

Amen.

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Sermon preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge on August 2, 2009

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The Church: The Ark of Salvation

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.  The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.

 1 Peter 3:18-22

 A couple of months ago, there was a rather humorous piece by Ben Marcus in the  Harper’s Magazine in which he envisions a man who has retreated to a cave as a means to survive the all the hardships that we are experiencing in the world at the present time.  Someone comes to the cave to interview him and he asks this cave dweller, How long have you advocated the cave?  The cave dweller answers, “Advocate is the wrong word.  If I occupy a life raft out on the ocean, and people are drowning, I don’t ‘advocate the raft to the them…If the people in the water choose to survive, they will swim to me and petition the raft…In such a case, advocacy for the raft is hardly necessary.”  Then the interviewer asks, “So you don’t need to promote what people cannot live without?” Now, even though this little piece by Marcus is rather satirical about survival strategies, I love his illustration about the life raft.  If people are drowning in an ocean, a man in a life raft doesn’t have to stand up in the raft and beg and plead with people, “Please come to the life raft.  Please get inside so that you won’t drown.”  No, people are swimming, clawing, climbing with all of their strength to get in that life raft, because they know that if they don’t, they will perish.  “You don’t need to promote what people cannot live without.”

             I couldn’t help but think what a great analogy that is for the Church.  In our day, we spend a great deal of time, advocating the Church, marketing the Church, but in spite of our great efforts and campaigns, the Church is largely ignored.  Why is that?  People are convinced that they can live without it.  They don’t see the church as a life raft that saves those who are perishing.   Or in the light of our text, they don’t see the church as an ark that will save them from perishing.

             In our youth study on Sunday, we are looking at numerous things about the church, even church architecture.  A few weeks ago we studied how the portion of the church building in which the congregation sits is called “the nave.”  The word “nave” is connected with the words “navy” and “naval.”  The nave calls to mind a ship.  In years gone by, people thought of the church as a ship, a ship in which you would be carried safely to harbor.  Christians were thought of as being passengers in the ark, sailors on a ship.  All around them were the tempestuous waves stirred up by the world, the flesh, and the devil.  They would have no chance of making it toHeaven if they were not in the safety of this great ship, the Church, that God has prepared to bring his people safely home.

             We have come a long way from seeing the Church as necessary to helping us reach Heaven at last.    The Church is no longer the great ark that keeps the waves of this world from overwhelming and dragging us to the bottom of the abyss.  Instead, our image of the Christian life is the individual believer, in his own little row boat with a paddle, trying to cross the ocean.  Unfortunately, when such little people in such little boats meet hurricane force winds and gigantic waves they are easily capsized.  If so-called Christians no longer see the necessity of the Church, the non-believers certainly do not see the church as something that they cannot possibly live without.  Why is it that the Church is ignored?  Why is it that even Christians view the Church as optional, but not really necessary to salvation?  Why is it that people are not desperately trying to get into the Church?

            First, people do not see themselves as perishing.  As I said earlier, if people are drowning, you don’t have to make elaborate presentations to try to convince that they need to get in the boat.  They are desperate to get in, pleading with you to help them get inside the boat.  The sad thing is that those who do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are perishing, they are drowning.  They just don’t realize it. They don’t realize that by living contrary to God’s law they are ruining their lives and the lives of the ones they love.  They don’t realize that they are separated from the blessings of God and that they will be eternally separated from them.  They don’t realize, to use the illustration of Jesus, that they are building their house on the sand, and that one day, the winds are going blow, and the floods are going to rage, and the fall of that house will be devastating.  This is why I have encouraged you to make this year a year of prayer.  We must pray that the eyes of people would be opened so that they might see the terrible danger that they are in.  They think that they are on solid ground.  Surrounded by all the comforts of life, a healthy body, a good job, plenty of fun and games in which to indulge themselves, how they possibly be in any kind of danger?  People do not see that they are in danger because they are spiritually blind.  We must pray that the Holy Spirit would open the eyes of people so that they can see the terrible danger that they are in if they do not come to Christ.  If people see themselves in these perilous waters, about to be dragged down into the depths, we will have no difficulty persuading them to enter the ark where they can find safety.

            But there are some people who realize that they are drowning, and yet never come to Church.  There are people who ruin their lives to the degree that they realize that they are drowning in the sea of a troubled life.  Some people have seen through all that the world has promised them and they are disappointed and disillusioned.  They have become so depressed that they find little reason to go on living.  Other people have ruined their lives and their families in the pursuit of sexual pleasures outside the bonds of holy matrimony.  Others have given themselves to drugs and alcohol and have found themselves totally enslaved by their dependence on these things.  Each year, the numbers of those who find life to be hopeless and meaningless increases.  People are drowning all around us, and they know they are drowning, but they do not turn to the Church for rescue.  Why is that?  Obviously, they don’t believe that the Church can help them.  But why is that?

            Part of the problem is that Church itself no longer looks upon itself as the ark that carries the people of God safely to heaven.  For the past two hundred years, we have accepted as fact such statements as, “You don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian.”  “You don’t have to be a member of the Church to be saved.”  How far we have come since the days of the early church!  The Church must return to the three great statements made by Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in the third century.  

(1) “He is not a Christian who is not in Christ’s church”; (2) “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother”; and (3) “There is no salvation outside the church.”  Now, don’t try to get around this by saying that Cyprian was referring to the invisible church composed of all the true believers.  Cyprian was talking about the visible church here on earth.  He was talking about the church that preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments.  Outside of that church, there is no salvation.  Speaking of our text for this morning he says, Cyprian–“Peter himself, showing and vindicating the unity, has commanded and warned us that we cannot be saved except by the one only baptism of the one Church. He says, ‘In the ark of Noah a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. Similarly, baptism will in like manner save you” [1 Peter 3:20-21]. In how short and spiritual a summary has he set forth the sacrament of unity! In that baptism of the world in which its ancient wickedness was washed away, he who was not in the ark of Noah could not be saved by water. Likewise, neither can he be saved by baptism who has not been baptized in the Church which is established in the unity of the Lord according to the sacrament of the one ark.  “We have been so brain-washed, so deceived by the teaching of so-called Christians in the last 150 years, that those three statements sound to us like heresy, but up until around 150 years ago, those statements were accepted by almost all branches of the Christian Church around the world.   Among modern, conservative Christians, the dominant opinion is that salvation is merely praying a prayer to receive Christ.    You don’t need the church for that.  A radio preacher can tell you how to do that.  The televangelist can lead you in that prayer right in the privacy of your home, and you are set for heaven.

            If salvation is merely saying a prayer to receive Christ, then we are wasting our time here at this church, trying to be a church, because we are superfluous at best.  We may be a good thing to have around, but not really necessary for the salvation of souls.  Independent evangelists and para-church organizations get people to make hundreds and thousands of decisions every week.  If these people are really being saved, we need to close our doors, or at least, adopt their methods for getting people in and getting them to make decisions. Last weekend, you may have seen that Franklin Graham was in town with the Rock the River tour.  In the newspaper last week, he said, “We’re not trying to reach the choir; we’re trying to reach kids who would never put their foot in a church.”  Now let’s think about that statement for just a minute.  “We’re trying to reach kids who would never put their foot in a church. “ Why is that?  Why is it that they would never put their foot in a church?  Is it because the church wouldn’t welcome them?  Or is it because they feel that they are better than the people in the church?  You know how young people often think:  “All those people in the church are hypocrites, but I’m the real deal.   I’m not a phony and they are.”  

Or is it that they don’t like the music in the church?  They like rock music and they are not going to sit and listen to some music that they can’t stand.  Is it that they find the sermons boring and irrelevant?  Is it that they just aren’t interested in the things of God, not interested in religion?  So, how do you reach those kids.  You offer them the music that they like.  And while they are there moving to the grooving, and yelling, “Play that funky music white boy,” somebody jumps in and gives them a 10 minute talk about Jesus and they bow their heads, pray the prayer, and they are set for heaven. (I realize I should have used a more contemporary group than Wild Cherry, but the point is the same.  Lay down the boogie and then get them to say that prayer.)  Now, if that is salvation, if people are really set for heaven as a result of this kind of campaign, then we need to close the doors on this church, and get down there right now and rock the river. 

They did far more good for the kingdom of heaven last Saturday than we will do in this Church for the next hundred years.  You say, Well, we still need this church here.  For what?   So people can worship according to a prayer book that uses Old English.  Well, we still need a place to worship.  Hey.  You can worship on the river.  Anyway, what is the worship of 35 people compared to seeing souls saved forever.   Franklin Graham said that in that seven hours of music and testimony,  “These bands will be giving testimonies of what God has done in their life and I hope that during that seven hours there will be kids who will come to know God and faith in his son Jesus Christ “….  Kids on drugs will be freed from drugs, kids on alcohol will be freed from alcohol, kids living a sinful life will be freed from sin with a new life and a new beginning.”  Is there anything we are doing here that can even remotely compare with that?  If seven hours of rock music and a 15 minute sermon can accomplish that, then we are wasting our time here.  All of that is taking place without a church, without sacraments.  If all that can be accomplished without a church and without sacraments, then let’s do that. 

But this is what happens when you reduce the gospel, when you reduce salvation to nodding your assent to a few truths and saying a prayer.  If that is salvation, then these kinds of campaigns are all that is necessary and that is what we should be doing.  That’s certainly what I should be doing.  I’m wasting my time being a pastor.  I should just spend all of my time getting on radio and television, hiring myself a rock band, whip up the crowd into an emotional frenzy, get people to say that prayer and tell them that they are set for heaven.

            You see, this is a new kind of Christianity, a new kind of salvation. It really got its biggest boost from men like Charles G. Finney in the 19th century.  It is salvation apart from the church, salvation apart from the sacraments. You say, Well, I believe that we are saved by faith in Christ alone.  So do I.  But I believe in the Jesus Christ who is the head of his body, the Church.  Is that the Jesus you believe in?  I believe that we are baptized by one spirit into one body, the Church of Jesus Christ.  Is that the Jesus you believe in?  What modern conservative Christians believe in now is a Jesus without a body.  They have some kind of mystical, intellectual, emotional experience with an idea about someone called Jesus, but they have no relationship with his body, the members of which have been baptized into his body. 

Jesus Christ did not shed his blood mass evangelism campaigns.  He didn’t die for para-church organizations and campus ministries.  He didn’t suffer for Bible studies.  He gave his life for his church.  Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church,  not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing.  Christ gave himself for the visible church here on earth.  When people were saved in the book of Acts, they didn’t join some mystical, invisible church.  They were members of a physical, visible body.  In Acts 2: 46] And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
[47] Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.  What Church is that one to which they were added.  Some invisible true church that nobody knew who the real members were?  No, that church that was continuing daily in the temple, breaking bread from house to house.  When Paul admonished the elders at Ephesus to take care of the church of God, what church was he talking about?  Some mystical, ethereal church.  No, we read, Eph. 20: Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  The church that Christ purchased with his blood was that visible church that these men had to take care of, that visible church that they had to feed.  In I Tim. 3:15, Paul writes, But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.  What church is it that is the ground and pillar of the truth.  Some mystical invisible body?  No.  it is the visible church, here, that is the ground and pillar of the truth.  A church that has bishops, priests, and deacons to care for it.

            And that is why we are here.  We are the Church.  We’re not a Christian organization. We’re not a society.  We’re not a fellowship.  We’re not a Bible study.  We’re the Church: a body of faithful people where the gospel is preached, the sacraments are administered, and who are governed by bishops.  And since we are the church, we are the ark, that through the grace of Christ, brings its passengers safely home.  It is the Church that gives us birth.  It is the Church that nourishes us.  It is the Church that disciplines us.  It is the church that guards and protects us.  You say, Well, I believe Jesus does all of that.  So do I.  But he does it through his church.   Even the great reformers, Luther and Calvin were agreed on this matter.  Luther said, “Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.[7]

            You see, we have turned what Luther believed upside down.  Luther said that if you would find Christ, you must first find the Church.  We have said, No, you must first find the rock concert, then find Jesus, and if you want to, if you feel like it, it would be a good idea to find a church.  Luther says, You must first go to the Church, because where else will find the truth about Jesus?  Outside the Christian church, there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.

            Calvin put it like this:  But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Matth. 22: 30.) For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa. 37: 32; Joel 2: 32.)  C

alvin, paraphrasing Cyprian that we read a moment ago, goes on to say,

“I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined let not man put asunder (Mark 10: 9:) to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. This was true not merely under the Law, but even now after the advent of Christ; since Paul declares that we are the children of a new, even a heavenly Jerusalem, (Gal. 4: 26.). 

You see, you won’t read this by preachers of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Preachers of the 19th and 20th centuries ruined Christianity because they did exactly what Calvin warns about here.  They separated what God had joined together.  They separated Christ from his body, the church.  They separated faith and the sacraments.  They separated salvation and the church.  And not only did they separate them.  They taught people to despise and hate the Church and her sacraments.

            Now, what has been the result of this intense effort by conservative Christians to downplay the role of the Church and her sacraments.  Well, not surprisingly, people are leaving the churches in droves.  Why should they remain.  If the church is not the ark, if the church is not essential to our salvation, is it really that important whether we are members of it or not?  About 10 years ago George Barna did a study about what happens after people make these decisions for Christ:  Studies we have conducted over the past year indicate that a majority of the people who made a first-time “decision” for Christ were no longer connected to a Christian church within just eight weeks of having made such a decision. 

Dawson MacAlister, who is an expert in youth ministries writes  that  90% of the young people who are active in church youth programs drop out of church by the time they are sophomores in college.  The Southern Baptists have said that they are losing 70-88% of their young people after their freshman year in college.  Other studies have shown that 88% of young people who grow up in conservative, evangelical Christian home leave the church at the age of 18.  88%.  What is going wrong here?  Now keep in mind.  These are young people who have made decisions.  These are young people who have prayed the prayer asking Jesus into their hearts.  They aren’t like our little heathen pagan children  who don’t have a real, personal relationship with Jesus.  These are the ones who waited until they were old enough to know what they were doing, and still, 88% leave the Church.  Why should we be surprised.  The Church isn’t necessary.  These are the kind who drop out and become “spiritual”, not religious, who don’t need any kind of institutional Christianity.  Well, you taught them the church wasn’t necessary.  That it was just an individual personal matter between them and Jesus.  Why are you surprised now that they feel like they can do without any kind of religious authority in their lives at all.  On the other hand, what do we tell our children.  You leave the Church, you’re going to hell.

            Now, let’s think about this for a moment.  Think of all the money that has been spent in the last 40 years on youth programs, youth directors, church gymnasiums, fellowship halls, family life centers, etc.  Think of the hours and hours that have been spent in entertaining our young people.  And still, 88% are going to leave the church altogether, the minute they get through that door after their 18th birthday.  But recent surveys reveal something interesting.  A recent survey of teenagers show that when they went to church, only 26% were interested in learning about prayer.  Only 26% were interested in religious teaching.  Only 23% were interesting in participating in discussion about religion and faith.  Only 21% were interested in having a mentor to help them mature in the faith.  Only 19% were interested in a study class about faith, and only 18% were interested in studying the Bible.  Then what are they interested in?  Music and friends.  So, what does the Church do.  We provide rock music and a place where they can hook up.  But when they get 18, they can find their music and friends somewhere else, and they don’t need the church anymore.

            This past week there was a great article on the Time web site by a Jewish comedian named Joel Stine, some of you may have seen some of his routines.  But in this article he was talking about how he had been invited to Rick Warren’s huge mega church in California to do some improvisational comedy with their comedy team at the church.  Evidently, Rick Warren’s church has a night of improvisational comedy once a month.   So Joel Stein goes there and says that he was a hit because evangelical Christians just aren’t funny.  As he put it, I may not be the Woody Allen or Jon Stewart of the secular world, but in the land of the unfunny Christian, the one-joked Jew is king.  He says that he asked the people at the church why they had this night of comedy, and he was told that they did this so that they might could get people to come to church who wouldn’t attend an ordinary church service. 

Then Joel Stein says this,

“This made sense until I thought about the kind of person who would say, “I’m not interested in eternal salvation, but I’d love to spend a Saturday night in a small conference room watching Christian improvisational comedy!” 

You see, this Jewish comedian gets it.  He understands something that conservative Christians just can’t see.    This is our evangelistic strategy.    I know you aren’t interested in worshiping almighty God, but hey, we have volleyball.  We know that you aren’t interested in studying Scripture and learning to be a disciple, but wouldn’t you love to go on a swimming trip with some of our bikini-clad teen-age girls.  Hey, the important thing is to get them in right?  It doesn’t matter how.  One of my friends describes this evangelistic strategy as the “get them in and let God sort them out later,” kind of evangelism.

            People often ask me, “What kind of evangelism does your church do?”  I’m doing right now the only kind of evangelism that truly can be done.  That is, the church doing evangelism.   Evangelism is not presenting a few selected facts from the Bible, chosen by who knows who (who chose the four spiritual laws), and getting people to say a prayer after you have convinced that those four or five points are true.  Evangelism is confronting people with all the truths about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit as contained in our creeds, confronting them with their own sinfulness and their need of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and their obligation to obey him in all things.  In short, evangelism is inviting people to enter the ark, the church of Jesus Christ, and believe all that the Church teaches concerning Jesus Christ, and submitting to the government and discipline of the church.  Jesus didn’t tell us to into all the world and get people to make decisions.  We’ve been doing that for 200 years and look at the results.  The command of Jesus was to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all things that Christ has commanded.  That is evangelism, and that is carried on within the discipline and oversight of the church.   

The Church must be so bold as to proclaim once again as the Church fathers did and as the great reformers did, the Church is the ark of salvation. There is no hope that the world will ever take the church seriously if the Church does not take itself seriously.  The world may never take us seriously, I don’t know.  But one thing is certain, if the Church sheepishly implies that she is optional, the world will consider her to be irrelevant and unnecessary.  But if the Church will rise above the waves once again, proclaiming that she is the ark that can give shelter to those who drowning in sin, there is the hope that she will be taken seriously.    

You do not need to promote what people cannot live without.  People cannot live without the Church.  It is a fascinating thing that in the early history of the church, before one could be a full member of the church, they had serve time as catechumen’s, a period of study, prayer, fasting, learning about the Christian faith.  After being a catechumen, then one could join the church.  Sometimes, a person had to wait as a catechumen for three or four years before they were admitted to the church.  The incredible thing to me is that people were willing to go through all of that just to become members of the church. 

IN these days, we beg and plead, tell them what we have to offer, hoping they will be persuaded to become members of the church, being assured that not commitment at all is required.    Can you imagine what would happen if we advertised our church this way.  Come to St. Paul’s and begin our three years program in order to be admitted to as a member.  Actually, that might not be a bad marketing technique.  It might imply that that there was something here so special that it would be worth working for three years to have the privilege of membership.  No doubt, that is the way the people felt in those early days when they had to wait that long as catechumens. 

They were willing to work that hard, wait that long, because they felt that they couldn’t live without it.  You do not need to promote what people cannot live without.  The Church is the ark of salvation.  All those who refuse to enter this ark perish, while all who enter, and remain in the nave of the ship, will arrive safely on the shores of God’s heavenly kingdom.  

Amen.

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Without Hope

Sermon preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge on August 2, 2009

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Without Hope

Eph. 2:12

            How does one live without hope?  When you are going through trials and difficulties in your life, and you have no hope that things will never get better, things will never be different, how do you face another day, get out of bed, and put one foot in front of the other?  When one is without hope, it is difficult to do.  What do you do when you have a medical condition and you are told that there is no hope that you will ever improve?  What do you do when you are trapped in a job that you hate, and you are so deeply in debt that a career move is impossible, and you realize that because of your responsibilities, you have to stay in a job you hate for the rest of your life?  What do you do when your family is falling apart, your marriage is in trouble, your children are in rebellion, and it appears that things will never be any different?   And what do you do when you stand by the graves of loved ones, and the full realization that they are dead really dawns upon you?

            In a recent movie calling “Knowing”, Nicholas Cage plays an astrophysics professor who is an agnostic.  He believes that the world came into existence as a result of random chance, and that everything that happens in life is also a result of chance, with no meaning and purpose.  But this movie does an excellent job of portraying what an agnostic does when he is faced with the greatest tragedies of life.  His wife is killed in a terrible accident, and he must somehow comfort his 10 year old son.  When he tries to tell his son that his mother is in a good place, the son throws back in his face that he know that his father doesn’t even believe there is a Heaven.  So the father says that he never said that he didn’t believe in Heaven, he had merely said that he didn’t know, but if the boy wanted to believe in Heaven, that was fine.   Atheism and agnosticism look good on paper and the arguments in their defense sound very intellectual, but such arguments are cold comfort when your philosophy causes you to look at the cold, meaninglessness of life, and the hopelessness of the future.

            How different is the Christian view of life! For the Christian, there is no such thing as being without hope, for the Christian is never without God.  When the Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians of their lives before they came to know Christ, he said that they were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”  Those two things—“having no hope” and “being without God” go hand in hand.  If you are without  God, then you have no hope.  If you have no hope, it is because you are without   God. 

            Because we believe in God, and because we know that God is working all things according to his providential will, we are never without hope.    Even when everything in our lives seems to be going wrong, though we may be surrounded with the troubles of Job, we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.  Whenever our society, our culture as a whole is rejecting God, turning its back on God’s law, we are not without hope, because God is still God.  Some Christian groups preach a constant pessimism where we are told that all we can do is circle the wagons and hope that Jesus returns soon.  But we know that God the Holy Spirit can  convert a nation to Christ in a day if he chooses to do so.  We just read in one of our Old Testament lessons today, those famous words from the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.  In other words, God doesn’t need to have all the governments, all the armies, all the earthly powers in this world on his side to accomplish his will.  He can accomplish everything he desires simply by the power of his spirit.  We are never without hope.  Though the kind of worship we practice here and the truths we preach here are the most despised of all groups, we are not in despair, for we  believe that the power of God is so strong that he can turn the world to his truth and his genuine worship.  We are never without hope.  Whenever our bodies have been injured beyond repair, we know that one day we will have glorious body, like the body of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.    And when we stand by the graves of loved ones, we do not believe that this is the end and that we will never see our friends and family members again.  We grieve when our loved ones pass away, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope.  We have this certain hope that these bodies will be raised by the power of God and that death will be swallowed up in victory. 

            In the movie Knowing that I mentioned earlier, the Nicholas Cage character discovers that the earth is going to be destroyed by a solar flare.  Before it happens, he wants to be reconciled to his father who is a Christian pastor.  As they are waiting for the end of the world, the father says, This is not the end, and Nicholas Cage says, I know.  The Christian always know this truth for certain.  When we stand at the grave side of loved ones, we can always say, This is not the end.  And when we are on our death beds, the future is no filled with uncertainty.  Our Christian friends remind us of the truths of Scripture, “This is not the end.”

            As most of you know, my favorite author is Thomas Hardy, who probably had the most bleak, pessimistic, and fatalistic outlook on life of any major novelist and poet.  Many English scholars have puzzled over what made Hardy so gloomy and why almost all of his novels end in such tragedy and despair.  One of the newer biographies about Hardy traces his despair to his loss of Christian faith.  Though there was a time when Hardy actually thought of becoming an Anglican priest, he eventually rejected the Christian.  In her biography of Hardy, Claire Tomlin, after discussing some of the reasons Hardy might have been go gloomy, writes, “In a sense too he never got over his own loss of Christian belief, which removed hope” (223).  Notice how she puts that—“which removed hope.”  Without the firm conviction that Christian beliefs are true, we have no hope.  Hardy so much as admits this to be true in the word of his most famous poem, which he eventually entitled, “The Darkling Thrush.”  Reminiscent   of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, Hardy is listening to the song of a thrush, and as he listens, he thinks,

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for caroling

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

 

            Christians who are familiar with their Bibles know where Hardy got that phrase, “some blessed Hope.”  St. Paul wrote in Titus 2:13, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.”  Hardy says that the song of this bird, contrary to its bleak surroundings, seemed to be aware of some blessed hope.  But Hardy is unaware of that hope now, because he has given up his Christian beliefs.  Notice how he even compares the song of the bird to “evensong.”  Being brought up an Anglican, Hardy attended many evensong services, though he was an agnostic he still frequently attended evensong throughout his life.    In a certain sense, Hardy wished he could believe what was said, what was sung at evensong, but he didn’t.  Thus, he is unaware of any blessed hope.

            But the Christian, like the darkling thrush, surrounded by gloom, still lifts his evensong, remembering the words of Scripture, “ Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:  That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:  Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil (Heb. 6:17-19).  Christians endure terrible sufferings and disasters as all people do, but what is the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian.  The Christian has an anchor of the soul, and that anchor is hope. 

When the seas of trial and tribulation, suffering and death, imminent disaster and bleak prospects are about to overwhelm us, we are never in despair, because we have laid hold upon the hope set before us, a certain hope, based on what Christ has done for us and prepared for us.  Far from having no hope, we have hope, for we have within us, Christ, the hope of glory. 

Amen.

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Sermon preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge on August  9, 2009

Jesus:  Inclusive or Exclusive

Luke 15:2

And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

It is often said by those in the more liberal churches that they practice the radical inclusiveness of Jesus, while those of us in the more conservative churches practice a bigoted form of exclusiveness.  The argument goes something like this:  Jesus received people no matter who they were, no matter how sinful they were.  So, the liberal churches say that they are like Jesus.  They receive people into their ranks no matter what their lifestyle might be.  All are welcome.  Then, these liberal churches look at us and say that we are like the Pharisees.  We put up all these rules and regulations and we discourage people from entering the kingdom of God.  Like the Pharisees, we exclude people from the kingdom of God that Jesus would receive.

          But let us examine this argument in the light of Holy Scripture.  Did Jesus practice the kind of radical inclusiveness that these people say he practiced?  And, are those in the conservative churches guilty of the kind of exclusiveness that the Pharisees practiced?

          First, there is no question that Jesus invited all people to come to him.  He excluded no one.  And in that respect, we, even in the conservative churches,  are radically inclusive.  We boldly proclaim the gospel to every creature that all people can come to Christ regardless of how sinful they may have been in the past.    But when Jesus invited people to come to himself, he did not say, “Come to me.  There is no need for you to change your behavior.  You may continue living as you please.  You need not conform your lives to the standards of God’s holy law.  You need not conform your lives to what I teach.  I welcome you and you can continue living in your sin.”  That is not what Jesus taught.

          Our gospel reading for today is often used to teach that God welcomes all people into his family no matter what they have done.  That is true.  Though the prodigal son had wasted his inheritance in all kinds of sinful behavior, his father received him, killed the fatted calf, and celebrated his return.    But the point of the parable of the prodigal son is that he was received because he repented.  Jesus tells three parables in Luke 15:  the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son.  The point of all three parables is “there is joy in the presence of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10).    The Pharisees had been criticizing Jesus because he was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.  But Jesus’ point in being the friend of tax collectors and sinners was not so that he could tell them it didn’t matter that they were living in sin.  He became their friend in order to tell them to repent, and to assure them that if they did repent, he would receive them.    In Mark 2: 16-17, we read, “And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?   When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus is radically inclusive—he invites everyone to repent.  But he is also exclusive.  If people do not repent, he does not receive them.

          It is true that in Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  There is Jesus being radically inclusive.  All are invited to come to him.  But in the next verse he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart:  and ye shall find rest for your souls.”  Yes, Jesus invites everyone to come, but he invites them to come and take his yoke upon themselves.  IN other words, he invites them to become disciples.  If you will become his disciple and follow his teachings, you will find rest for your souls.  But if you refuse to take the yoke, then you are not coming to Christ, and you will not find rest.

          It is often pointed out by some that Jesus looked at the religious leaders of his day and said, “the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”   Some people seem to think that that means the religious people were excluded while the harlots and the tax collectors found a place in the kingdom of God, as though they remained in that sinful condition.  But what did Jesus actually say?  He said, “Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.  For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”  What was John the Baptist preaching that the tax collectors and harlots believed?  John the Baptist was preaching repentance, that people should forsake their sins and live righteously before God.    Jesus was not saying that the tax collectors could continue their dishonest practices and that the harlots could keep selling their bodies and they would enter the kingdom of heaven.    The reason the tax collectors and the harlots entered the kingdom of God was because they turned from their sin and rebellion against God.  The Pharisees were excluded because they refused to believe what John was preaching and they refused to repent. 

          In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus demonstrates again how inclusive he is.  The king tells his servants to go into the highways and gather as many as they could find to come to the feast.    And we are told, “So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good:  and the wedding was furnished with guests” (Matt. 22:10).    So, some people say, “See, Jesus includes everybody at the wedding feast:  the good and the bad.”  But let us continue reading the parable.   Jesus said, “And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:   And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.  

Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.   For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:11-14).  So, here is a man who responded to the call that goes out to everyone to come to the feast.  But in the end, he is excluded from the feast because he doesn’t have on the wedding garment.  And what is the wedding garment?  The wedding garment is two things.  It is the righteousness of Christ and the righteous acts of the believer.  When we were baptized, we put on Christ.  And the proof that we have put on Christ is that we live righteous lives.  As John put it, “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (I John 3:7). 

Matthew Henry described the wedding garment in this way: 

“Many come to the wedding feast without a wedding garment. If the gospel be the wedding feast, then the wedding garment is a frame of heart, and a course of life agreeable to the gospel and our profession of it, worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called (Ephesians 4:1), as becomes the gospel of Christ, Philippians 1:27. The righteousness of saints, their real holiness and sanctification, and Christ, made Righteousness to them, is the clean linen, Revelation 19:8. This man was not naked, or in rags; some raiment he had, but not a wedding garment. Those, and those only, who put on the Lord Jesus, that have a Christian temper of mind, and are adorned with Christian graces, who live by faith in Christ, and to whom he is all in all, have the wedding garment.” 

As you can see, Matthew Henry describes the wedding garment as “a course of life agreeable to our profession of it.”  In other words, you may say that you believe in Jesus Christ, but if your life does not conform to the teachings of Christ, then you are a hypocrite, and you will be excluded.  So, Jesus concludes the parable by saying “Many are called.”  There is the radical inclusiveness of Jesus.  Everyone is called.  But few are chosen.  Few respond to the call, and even among those who respond to it, few lead lives that demonstrate that they have truly heard and responded to that call.  Many are called, but only those who repent and believe are chosen.

          Another example of the radical inclusiveness of Jesus is the story of the woman taken in adultery.  She was caught in the very act of adultery and the people say that she should be stoned.  Jesus said, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and the accusers walk away, knowing that their hypocrisy has been exposed.  Jesus looks at the woman and says, Neither do I condemn you.  So, people say, See Jesus didn’t condemn the woman taken in adultery, so adultery must be all right.  But again, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”  Jesus didn’t say, Go back to your life of adultery and you will still be welcome in my kingdom.  No, he said, “Go and sin no more.”  Repent of your adultery. 

          We see another example of the readiness of Jesus to receive sinners in the story of Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector.  Jesus went to his house to eat with him, and the Pharisees criticized him for it.  But Jesus said, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).  People say, “See, Jesus receives people like Zaccheus, no matter who they are.  But Jesus said, Salvation has come to this house, after Zaccheus had said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8).  It was by his repentance that Zaccheus demonstrated that he was a true son of Abraham.  Remember how the Pharisees were always boasting that they were the children of Abraham.  John told them not to plead their ancestry.  God could raise up children of Abraham from stones.  What demonstrated that you were a true child of Abraham was repentance.

          So, even in these stories where the liberal churches claim that Jesus practices a radical inclusiveness, we find that the Jesus’ inclusiveness means that he invites everyone to repent.  And if people do not repent of their sins, they are excluded, and judgment awaits them.  As we read in Matt. 11:20-21– Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  So, whether you are a scribe, a Pharisee, a priest, a tax collector or a harlot, the message is the same, “Repent of your sins.”

          Sometimes, the liberal churches say, “Well, our doors are open to all the children of God.”  But who are the children of God?  You say, Well, everyone human being is a child of God.  They are children of God in the sense that God is responsible for their creation, but in Bible language the children of God are only those who believe in Jesus Christ.  In John 1:11-12, we read, He came unto his own, and his own received him not.  But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”  Only those who have received Christ as Lord and Saviour are the children of God.  Others are excluded from that title.

          Yes, Jesus was radically inclusive.  He invited all people to believe in him.  He invited all people to repent of their sins.  He invited all people to become his disciples.  Jesus told us to make disciples of all the nations.  But just as Jesus could be radically inclusive, he could also be dramatically exclusive.    Just as he invited all to be his disciples, he could say, “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” (Matt. 10:37-38).  All those who do not love him supremely are excluded from the ranks of his disciples.    Jesus invites everyone to enter at the narrow gate, but he warns of a time when the door will be shut, and people will beg to be admitted into his kingdom, but he will say, “Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity” (Luke 14:27).  If people do not repent of their sins, they are excluded by our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

          This is a very hard teaching to accept, so those in both liberal and conservative churches have resorted to other methods in order to make Jesus more inclusive.  The one that the liberal churches usually take is to simply redefine sin.   If the Bible defines certain actions as sinful, well, you know, those were primitive people.  In our enlightened age now, we know that those actions are not really sinful.  And even if the Church has taught for 2,000 years that certain acts are sinful, we know better now.  So, people do not have to repent of these sins, because they are not sins anyway.

          Many of the conservative churches have taken another way to make more people included in the kingdom.  They do it by perverting the teaching of the gospel concerning grace.  For these preachers, their main word is Grace, Grace, Grace.  They argue that since we are saved by grace, not by works, as long as a person believes in Jesus, he can live any pleases and he will still go to heaven at last.  And these are people who believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God and who will use Scripture to prove their points.  But this is merely a conservative kind of liberalism.  The end result is the same:  Live any way you please and Christ will receive you.

          As we have seen in this brief study, that radically inclusive Jesus who receives everyone regardless of faith in him and repentance from sin is not the Jesus of Holy Scripture.    Such a Jesus is an idol invented by preachers to make the gospel more palatable to people who love their sin and refuse to repent.  Don’t let those in the liberal churches make you feel that you are narrow minded and bigoted because you believe that Jesus demands repentance from sin.  If you are narrow-minded for believing so, you are no more narrow minded the Lord Jesus Christ himself.  But the truth is, that those of us who believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus as he himself preached it, are radically inclusive.  We invite all people to come to Christ. 

We invite all people to our churches to hear the teaching of God’s word.  In that sense, we are inclusive  But at the same time, we proclaim that while Jesus receives sinners, he receives those sinners who repent, and love him above all things. 

Amen.

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Sermon preached by Rev. Father Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge on August 16, 2009

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You Have No Idea Who You Are

Jer. 17:9

Some years ago, I was attending a Baptist church, and at the end of the worship service, the pastor gave an opportunity for people to come to the front to make various kinds of decisions.  During that invitation, a man came down the aisle, took the pastor’s hand, and then, began to weep on his shoulder.  The pastor asked everyone to sit down and he explained that the man who had come forward was a police officer.  As a result of spending several years on the police force, this officer said that he had lost all faith in his fellow man, and he was requesting the prayers of the church that he might be able to love others in spite of what he had come to know about what human beings really are.

          It is a very frightening and disillusioning thing when we realize the evil that resides in other people, and what horrible acts they are capable of committing.  What is even more frightening and disillusioning is when we realize the evil that resides in our own hearts and what we are capable of doing.    Given the right motivation, certain circumstances, have we ever really considered what we are capable of doing, how low we can sink morally. 

          In 2005, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the movie Crash, starring Matt Dillon and Sandra Bullock.  Part of the plot of the film involves two policeman, one who has been on the force for a number of years and has become a hardened man who has seen through everyone and everything, and has become a rather despicable person himself.  The other policeman is young and idealistic, imagining himself as a sort of crusader for truth and justice.  At one point, the hardened veteran looks at this idealistic young man and says, “Wait until you’ve been on the job a few more years….  You think you know who you are.  You have no idea.”  Toward the end of the film, the young man finds out that the veteran cop was right.  He kills a young man and then covers up his crime, something that even a few hours before he would have thought himself incapable of doing. 

“You think you know who you are.  You have no idea.”        Our lives are very often the slow, and sometimes sudden, realization of finding out what we really are.  It is easy for us, especially when we are young, to be very judgmental, and condemn others when they fall, when they don’t live up to our expectations.    We like to think that we would never be capable of doing such things.    We think we know who we are, the person that we think we are could never do such things.    But throughout our lives, certain things happen to us that take away this false concept of ourselves.  We are put in situations, perhaps by money and power, where we have temptations that many people never face, and the temptation proves to be too strong for us to resist.   People who thought that they were as emotionally strong as the rock of Gibraltar, find that when they are faced with personal tragedies such as sickness and death, they crumble.   People who think that they are in control of their feelings, find that when other people push the right buttons, they can fly into a rage so strong, that it may actually result in violence.    Down through the centuries, people have found that when they are faced with unemployment, faced with the loss of their homes, and in some cases, faced with starvation itself, they are capable of doing things that they would have never dreamed of doing before.    “You think you know who you are.  You have no idea.”

Actually, that statement reveals a truth about ourselves that the Bible teaches from cover to cover, one of the most famous examples being in our text for this morning.  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  IN this context, when Jeremiah uses the word “heart,” he is referring to the person that you really are—the person at the very center of his being.    We often hear people say about someone, “Well, he did a lot of bad things, but he was good at heart.”  No.  What the Bible teaches us is that we are very evil at heart, wicked at the center of our beings.  We would have to say that this is one of the truths of Scripture that needs no elaborate scientific investigation or philosophical argument to support it.  All we need do is look at human history and we can see that every moment of every day, from the time of the fall of man until now, is a confirmation of Jeremiah 17:9.    All we need to do is look at the United States of America at the present time in order to see universal proof of this verse.  More than that, all we need do is take an honest look into our own hearts, and we will see that this verse is true.  The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.  Who can know it.”

The interesting thing is that most people do not see this truth.   They think that this verse may be true about some other people, but certainly not everyone, and certainly, not about themselves.    And this very verse tells us the reason why.  The heart is deceitful.  The fact of the matter is, we spend most of our lives deceiving ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that our hearts are not as wicked as Scripture portrays them.  We think of all the good things we do.  We think of all the kind actions and the works of sacrifice we have performed for others.  We have given money and time to various charities.    We have been good fathers, mothers, children, husbands, and wives.  We have been good employees, and at the end of a lifetime of hard work for our families, we have the gold watch to prove it.  How can it be that my heart is wicked.  Though we may try to hide behind this veneer of civilized behavior, if we take an honest look at ourselves, we see that the depravity of our hearts could break out at any moment and reveal what we really are deep down inside, what we are capable of doing.

Years ago, there was a play that written about the people of Germany and how they had become a people that committed all the atrocities that they committed under the leadership of Adolph Hitler.  The point of the play was to show that Germany was the most sophisticated, civilized, literate of nation—a people who took pride in their great poets, musicians, and composers.  Yet, it was this nation that followed a madman, and committed the most brutal  of crimes against humanity.  How could the German people have done it?  The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.

I often hear people say, “Well, if I know my own heart.”  The sad truth is that you probably don’t.  The heart is deceitful and constantly hides the truth about itself.  That is why the prophet asks the question, “Who can know it?”  The heart is so deceitful that I certainly don’t know what is in your heart.  But worse than that, I don’t even know what is in my own heart.   The heart always convinces us that we are better than we really are.  The heart always soothes over the conscience and says that what we didn’t wasn’t wrong, or wasn’t really that bad, or certainly not as bad as the things other people have done.  The heart convinces us that the end justifies the means.  The heart convinces us that though we may have done wrong, our motives were basically good. 

This word that is translated as “know” could also be translated as “understand.”  The heart is deceitful above all things…who can understand it.”  Do you ever find yourself thinking that after you have done something terribly sinful.  Do you ever find yourself, just kicking yourself, saying, “Where did that come from?  How could I have said that?  How could I have done that?”  I don’t understand.  NO, and you never will until you realize that the problem is at the very root of your being—in the heart.

 Notice how the prophet doesn’t merely say that the heart is deceitful. He says that the heart is deceitful above all things.  Think of all the things in the world that are deceitful.  Liars are deceitful.  Murderers are deceitful.  Adulterers are deceitful.  Thieves are deceitful.  But as deceitful as these may be, they do not begin to compare with the deceitfulness of the heart. 

But the description of the heart gets even worse in this verse.  The word that is translated as “desperately wicked” actually means “incurable.”  Jeremiah says that the heart is deceitful above all things and is incurable.    Of all the words in our vocabulary, perhaps the one that frightens us most is that word “incurable.”  We go to a doctor because we are sick and he tells us that we have a certain disease and that it is incurable.  What fear grips the heart when we hear those words.  And that is the condition of the heart.  It has a sickness.  That sickness is deceitfulness and it is incurable.  Part of the reason that it is incurable is that it refuses to even acknowledge that it is sick.  It deceives itself into thinking that it is good, that there is no problem.

Well, what can be done about this heart that is incurably deceitful?  This is where we are totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us how deceitful our own hearts really are.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals the deceitfulness of our hearts to when we are reading Holy Scripture and we are confronted with the righteous standards of God’s holy law, and the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see that we have been deceiving ourselves.  Sometimes, the Holy Spirit reveals the deceitfulness of our hearts through the preaching of the word.  We have been living in such a way that we think we are pretty good, but the Holy Spirit puts the words into the mouth of the preacher in such a way that he reveals to us the very depths of our hearts, and the Holy Spirit forces us to take a good look at what is really in the heart.  And very often, the Holy Spirit uses our sin itself and the consequence of our sins to reveal to us the depravity of our hearts.  Sometimes, it is only after we have destroyed our lives and our reputations by our sin, that we truly see the heart in all of its wickedness.  Sometime, it is only we have hurt those that we love most, that we see how evil the heart is, that it would cause us to inflict this kind of pain and suffering on other people.

But even after we have seen the heart in all of its deceitful wretchedness, where does that leave us?  All we have seen is that the heart is deceitful, but we are left with the dismal prognosis—it is also incurable.  Here again, the work of the Holy Spirit is our only hope.  It is true that the heart is incurable.  Sadly, many people think that they can overcome the deceitfulness of their hearts, the wickedness of their hearts by turning over a new leaf, by trying to live by the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.  But it is impossible to live a moral life with the deceitful heart.  This is the mistake of morality without Christ, which interestingly enough, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church fell into in the 19th century.  Christianity became merely a system of morality that taught us virtues, how to be good citizens, how to be respectable, how to be culturally refined.  Perhaps Episcopalians are the greatest example of those who put aesthetics  and cultural refinements above truth.  So, what if the pastor is not preaching the truth.  The building is beautiful and the choir is wonderful.  But what has been the result of morality, culture, civility, and refinement without Christ.  The result has been immorality, simply because the heart cannot become moral, cultured, and refined.

So, here we are—faced with the old, incurable heart.  What can be done to make that heart better?  Nothing!  It can only be replaced.  But that is what the gospel is all about.  It is interesting that this word “deceitful” is used in Isa. 40:4, where is translated as crooked:  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:”  As you know, this is the verse that John the Baptist used to describe what would happen with the coming of Christ.  That which is crooked, that which is deceitful in us would be taken away by the coming of Christ, and it is only his coming that can take away the deceitful heart.  The gospel is not about reforming the old, deceitful heart.  The promise of the gospel is that we would be given new hearts.    There are two promises in the book of Ezekiel that promise that under the days of the New Covenant, God would give us new hearts. In Ezekiel 11:19-20, we read,

“And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

Notice that God does not say that he will reform the old hearts.  He says that he will take away the heart of stone, that heart that is so hard and unresponsive to the will of God, and he will replace that heart with a heart of flesh, one that is soft and that will be responsive to his word.  The result of having received this new heart will be that they will walk in his statutes and keep his ordinances.   The writer to the Hebrews tells us how the promise of the New Covenant was fulfilled through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus on the cross.  In Hebrew 8: 16

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Again, this is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Ezekiel 36:25-26, we read,

“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”

This is another of the reasons we sprinkle when we baptize, for through baptism we are sprinkled with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and we are given the Holy Spirit  so that we might live in obedience to God.  This is why Christ came into the world—to take away the incurable heart and give us a heart that can love God and walk in obedience to him.

As I close, I would like to look at the statement now  in different light.  You think you know who you are.  You have no idea.  I would now like to turn that on its head and speak to those of you who have been given new hearts.  I don’t think we have fully understand what has happened to us in redemption.  We have been given new hearts. 

  • We are those who can now say that our hearts have been purified by faith (Acts 15:9).  We are those in whom the love of God has been shed abroad in  our hearts (Rom. 5:5).   
  • We are those who are called upon to love the Lord our God with all our hearts (Matt. 22:37).   
  • We are those of whom it is said that  Christ lives in our hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17).  So, here we see two sad things. 

Those outside of Christ do not see the deceitfulness of their old hearts.  Believers often do not see the new heart that has been given to them in redemption, and what love, compassion, obedience, and good works can flow from that heart.    

To the believer I would say, You think you know who you are, but you have no idea.  You are a person with a new heart, a new heart that love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Let the rest of your life be a continual discovery, and a continual opportunity to reveal the new heart, not the one that is deceitful and incurable, but the heart that is filled with the love of God himself. 

Amen.

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