Jerusalem Snapshot

Getting the most from the glimpse we have of Jesus as a child...

SJF • Christmas 2 2015 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When his parents did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.+

A few Christmases ago my youngest sister gave all of us siblings a very thoughtful gift. She went through the shoe boxes of old family photographs to find a portraits of our four grandparents, and then she had professional copies made, and matted and framed them as gifts to each of us five other grandchildren. None of us knew our grandfathers — my father’s father died when my dad was twelve, and my mother’s father was long separated from my grandmother, and not spoken of. But we knew — all of us — our “grans” Mary and Naomi, and loved them both. We knew them, however, as people who had always been old; so much older than us. So my sister hoped her gift would remind us this hadn’t always been the case. They had once been young. They hadn’t always been old. The photographs she chose were of our grandparents in their own younger days, in their twenties or thirties.

However, she was unable to find a portrait of my grandmother Mary at that age. All pictures of her youth included others; so for this gift my sister chose a picture of Mary, my grandmother, with her husband and their daughter — our mother (Mary also) as a little girl. That made it, in its own way, a wonderful contribution to a wonderful gift, to see our own mother as a child. I know we all treasure this gift — I’ve got my copy of it up in the hall of the rectory — especially since we know this snapshot of our my grandmother with my mother and her husband is one of the few surviving pictures of my grandmother when she was young, and of our own mother when she was a child.

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Our Gospel reading from Saint Luke today is rather like that solitary photograph. As you know, the evangelists Mark and John in their gospels tell us absolutely nothing about our Lord’s infancy or childhood, and Matthew jumps right from the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth to the preaching of John the Baptist, skipping over all of those intervening 30-some years. Only Luke gives us a solitary glimpse of Jesus in the time between his miraculous birth and his adult ministry.

It is true that there are a number of what are called apocryphal gospel stories in old manuscripts, some of them very ancient. But these accounts never made it into our Bible, these stories that tell of Jesus as a child in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, or of Jesus playing with making mud animals out of clay by the side of the pool in the village, and the little animals coming to life, to the amazement of all of the other children, or the story about the childhood friend of Jesus who fell from the roof of the house and died, and Jesus brought him back to life. All of those stories appear in those other manuscripts, but none of them made it into our Bible. The church judged these stories to be imaginative tales meant to feed the hunger for knowing more about Jesus during those mysterious hidden years from his birth to his ministry.

Instead, the church chose to preserve only Luke’s snapshot from Jerusalem, that image of Jesus left behind in the Temple where he questions and responds to the teachers, this snapshot of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxiety, of the child’s faithful and provocative awareness of who his Father really was, and of his subsequent obedience to his mother and foster father, and his return home to Nazareth, where he grew in grace.

And so, the church has preserved this solitary snapshot for us, so it must be important; so let us look at it carefully, as something to treasure, to see if we can learn something of this child who would later grow to be the man whom we acknowledge as Lord and God. We will find that in doing so we will also learn a little bit about ourselves, and what it means to be the church.

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The first thing to note in this snapshot is that Jesus is among the elders and teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, understand them and answering wisely. This reveals a very important truth about our God: not only that God is wise and understanding, but that God listens. Our God, the God whom we worship, God whom Jesus shows forth as his perfect reflection and image “in human flesh appearing” as the hymn says — God does not just speak to us, through Scripture and through the inner voice of conscience. God not only speaks to us, God listens to us. God understands us.

God is not simply a powerful being sitting in a remote heaven running the universe. But our God also listens to us when we pour out our hearts, when we gather here to worship and to pray and to praise. What this snapshot from Jerusalem shows us, what this image of the twelve-year-old Jesus listening to his teachers reveals to us, is that God not only hears us, but that God listens to us. And if you don’t know the difference between hearing and listening, just ask your spouse or your parents! So the first thing we learn about Jesus as God from this Jerusalem snapshot is that our Lord not only hears our prayers, but that he listens to our prayers, and responds to our prayers — and the response will be amazing.

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The second thing this incident reveals to us is Jesus’ sense of who he is and where he is: who his true Father is, and where he needs to be to be about his Father’s business. No doubt by the time Jesus was twelve he had seen the winks and nods and nudges in Nazareth — you know, the ones concerning his parents’ marital status. Perhaps he’d heard the rumors and the gossip from those who could count to nine and knew when the wedding had been, and when he was born. Perhaps he’d been called names in the schoolyard, as he would be when he grew up, and as the gospel records, when the crowds say to him, “We are not illegitimate children!” Whatever the source, whether the wagging tongues of townsfolk with too much time on their hands and too little charity in their hearts, or more likely the insight of the Holy Spirit, Jesus knows not only who his father isn’t, but more importantly who his true Father is, and he knows where his Father’s house is: the Temple. And so on this trip to Jerusalem, he returns to the Temple where Mary and Joseph had presented him and redeemed him with a thank-offering when he was just a few weeks old.

This tells us something very important about our identity as Christians: for since Jesus taught us to call God our Father in that prayer every day, we too know that whoever our earthly fathers are we also have a Father in heaven, a Father through whom we are “called to a glorious inheritance among the saints.” This snapshot, then, is like an identity photo, it tells us who we are: we are Christians, brothers and sisters of Jesus, “adopted as children of God through Jesus Christ.”

And this snapshot from Jerusalem also tells us something about what we Christians do: we worship. For while we can and should pray when we are alone, wherever we may be, we can only truly worship when gathered as the church, in the church. This is why we work so hard to preserve and restore this special place; not because we think we can only find God here, but because we know that we have found God here, in God’s house. Jesus knows, as well as we know, what his ancestor in the line of David, King Solomon, had said: that “the Temple could not contain God.” Still Jesus knows that the Temple is a special place of focus, not for God’s attention on us, but for our attention on God. It is a place, as Lincoln said of government, of God’s people, by God’s people and for God’s people, so that, as Jeremiah said, “what was scattered could be gathered home again,” so that the remnant could return, gathered from the farthest corners of the earth, to come and sing aloud on the heights of Zion, to be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, to be filled with gladness instead of sorrow. And don’t we find that here too, on our little church? A place where we can gather, and be filled with the knowledge of God? So it is that our church, our gathering in it — our “congregating” — is a vitally important part of our life as people of God. It allows us both to worship gathered together, but also to find the intrinsic value of what it means to be gathered together as God’s family.

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Finally — and I say “finally” in the knowledge that Dean Baxter of the Washington Cathedral once defined an optimist as a man who starts to put on his shoes when he hears the preacher say “Finally”! — finally, I say, (there is a little more) our snapshot shows the young Jesus returning to Nazareth with his parents, where he was obedient to them. He leaves the place he knows to be his true Father’s home, the place where God is worshiped and adored, the place where prayer is offered, the place where the people of God gather to hear instruction and wisdom, but he leaves that place to go out into the world, out to the far reaches of Galilee. He leaves the Temple to live a life of preparation, that life of which we know nothing until he bursts upon the scene 20 years later, ushered in by John the Baptist to begin his ministry, ultimately to return to Jerusalem again, to witness, to suffer, to die and to rise again for our salvation.

Jesus left the Temple, and so must we. This holy place that nourishes and comforts us is not our dwelling place; though “the sparrow may find her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young” even at the side of God’s altar, we human creatures of God, we the ones whom God chose to bear his image in this world must also bear his message to this world. And that means going out the door, out to the world in need of God’s word, God’s message. As lovely as this church is, it is not our dwelling place — it is more like our filling station: the place we are fed the bread from heaven so that we may be strengthened to do God’s work on earth, out there, out there where the world is hungry and cold, but doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the cold and be fed.

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Luke left us a snapshot from Jerusalem to show us what we must do, as Jesus did. Through our dedicated time apart with God in this beautiful and holy place, instructed in God’s wisdom and ways, as we hear his voice in Scripture and in song, comforted in the knowledge that our God hears our voice and listens to our prayer, and will respond to us for our best end, strengthened by our communion with one another and in our worship, and fed with the food of salvation, the Body and the Blood of the Holy One of God, we can then go forth in obedience to the call of God, our true Father in heaven, to do his work and to proclaim his word to the ends of the world. The One whom we come to adore also sends us on our way rejoicing. To him be the glory, henceforth and forever more.+

Peace - Spirit - Mission

SJF • Pentecost A • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Let me begin with one last, ‘Happy Easter!’ — because today, the feast of Pentecost, is the last day of Easter season, the fiftieth day that adds one to the seven times seven of days since Easter Day. This is the day that puts the exclamation point at the end of our Alleluia! For this is the day on which God’s Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples to empower them for the great mission of the church. This is the day that transformed a withdrawn group of believers into a force that would change the world as much as they themselves had been changed.

We heard the account of what happened on that day in our first reading this morning: the signs and wonders of tongues untied in a torrent of praise to God in as many languages as they could possibly give praise. We heard of the bewilderment of that crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem, and their amazement, as their ears were opened as effectively as were the mouths of the apostles, so that they could receive the good news.

This morning, however, I’d like to back up a bit from the Pentecost event itself, and focus on the prelude we find in John’s Gospel. In this incident, Jesus Christ lays the foundation for what is to come. In this encounter, he gives the preview of coming attractions for the feature that is rated PG: Praise God!

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John sets the scene: it’s Sunday evening, the first day of the week — and we know how important first days of the week, Sundays, are in the history of God’s work in the world! The fearful disciples are locked behind closed doors. Suddenly, Jesus is among them. And he first thing he says is, “Peace be with you” — the standard way of saying “Hello” in the Middle East for thousands of years. Whether you say ‘Shalom aleichem’ or ‘As-salaam alaikum’ this is how you greet people in the Holy Land: ‘Peace be with you.’ Isn’t it ironic that ‘Peace be with you’ should be the norm in a part of the world that hasn’t known more than a few years of peace at a time for thousands of years! But then again, maybe it makes even more sense, the same kind of sense that led Jesus to speak those words to the frightened disciples — as if to say, “Don’t be afraid... Yes we live in terrible times; there is a lot to fear, but I am here to bring you peace. I am on your side; your friend not your foe. Peace be with you!”

So it is that God speaks to us today through the church. Even in the midst of turmoil and struggle, still the church is the place of God’s peace; which is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of God’s overarching rule and justice. God’s peace — that is what Jesus speaks to the disciples, and speaks to us today and every day: Peace be with you; not peace as the world gives, but as God gives.

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Next Jesus shows them his hands and his side: to certify by these tokens who it is that stands before them. And though we might think it odd of him to show his wounds as a sign of peace, surely this is proper: for these are the very wounds, the ones which could not prevail against him. The nails and the spear did not bring about his eternal death, only that time of a few short days, and then through the power of Almighty God he overcame death and the grave, and the wounds are now trophies of his victory over death, as if to say, ‘Even these couldn’t keep me down.’

So it is that the church, which is the wounded body of Christ, is still here. Our church, Saint James, is a physical symbol of this: we may have some bad patches in our ceiling up there around the roof-line, and cracks in some of our windows, but the power of death cannot prevail against us, it cannot keep us down. In the power of God we will prevail and remain to witness to his grace and loving-kindness to us and to all who believe.

We know that as people we have suffered as well, and yet been restored. We have been tested and tried, but have never, though, been forsaken by the one whose promises are sure. So there is cause to rejoice, as the disciples do when Jesus comes among them, certified by the very wounds by which the powers of this world afflicted him, yet standing there among them, alive.

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And breathing! For then comes the crucial moment, the moment when Jesus breathes upon the disciples. In this he foreshadows the coming of the Holy Spirit that will equip them to carry out his command: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I now send you.’ Remember: this is, as I said, the first day of the week — and Jesus, as he breathes upon the disciples, is pouring out that same Spirit of God that hovered over the waters on that first Sunday, the first day of creation. For this is the new creation, the creation not of the world but of the church that will be sent on its mission to the world. Jesus is preparing them for the great sending, the great mission of the church, the reason the church exists as his body on earth, to be sent to do the work of God just as he himself had been sent to do God’s work.

And for this work the Spirit is essential. There can be no mission of God without the Spirit of God: if you take the Spirit out of the church it will cease to be the church. Without the breath of God filling the church, it is like a balloon without any air in it, just a little scrap of rubber than lays there.

Sad to say, the church has sometimes been more like that scrap of rubber just laying there than a Spirit-filled ambassador of God. As I mentioned a few weeks back, among great disasters of the so-called missionary era of the nineteenth century was that the Gospel of God’s love was transmitted through a church that was not only intolerant but prideful, and sometimes hateful. The European missionaries too often made the mistake of thinking that anything European was superior to anything they found wherever they went. Here in America native children were beaten and punished for speaking the language of their parents; artifacts were destroyed and cultures ravaged. Yes, people became Christians, but many of them, too many of them, came to understand the church not as a place of love and charity, but as a place of strictness and judgment, of narrowness, a place not of peace, but of wrath. That message was delivered in so many places in the world: that the way to be a good Christian is to be intolerant and judgmental of anyone who thinks or speaks or acts differently. And we live with the results of that missionary message to this day.

How different from the missionary effort begun on Pentecost. The apostles did not tell those to whom they spoke, ‘You must speak our language if you are to be saved’ — on the contrary it was they who were filled with the power of the Spirit so that they spoke all those different languages themselves, so that the word might be spread to all hearers.

There is an urgent need to recover that missionary message by which England itself was brought into the Christian fold. When Saint Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to Canterbury, he gave him specific instructions to respect the people of England who, even though they were pagans, were created in God’s image. What’s more, Gregory told him not to destroy the pagan temples and shrines, but to use them as places for Christian worship, so that the people who were accustomed to worshiping their gods in those places might be gradually become accustomed to worshiping the true God.

The church is challenged today to exercise its mission in this way. Not imposing its view upon an unwilling world, but welcoming that world to the great feast. The church’s message is proclaimed most clearly by means of the church’s own being and substance, in the life the church as it lives in its many members, each equipped with spiritual gifts through the one Spirit of God. By this, Jesus assures us, the world will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another. How we act is as important as what we say, whatever language we may speak; perhaps even more so: the church is the message of love for the world, the world that God loved so much that he gave his only son not to condemn it, and it is by showing that love to the world that we lead the world to God, who is Love. The church is called and empowered to deliver and to be a message of tolerance, grace, hope and restoration in the midst of a world filled with intolerance, fear, division and despair.

The church itself is called to be a sign of God’s presence; it is the Body of Christ, wounded and yet risen and alive. It is filled with the breath of God’s Spirit to sing and to shout out the good news to the ends of the earth, and above all to proclaim God’s peace to the nations of the world.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are that church: let us be that church, let us be that message, that mission. Let us rejoice in the presence of God with us, and spread the word to all whom we encounter: Shalom aleichem! As-salaam alaikum! Peace be with you! Alleluia, He is risen! Now and unto the end of the ages, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

At Your Service

SJF• Easter 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”

It has long been a tradition to take up the account of the early church in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles during worship in Easter Season. As I noted last week, this can be a bit confusing as it gets events into a disordered sequence — we won’t celebrate Pentecost for a few weeks yet, and most of what we are hearing from Acts takes place after the original descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, seven weeks — a week of weeks — after the first Easter. I noted last week that during this time we are a bit like Doctor Who, bouncing back and forth in time, as the story is told out of order.

But that being said, isn’t it a wonderful story! In today’s short reading we hear of the short period of peace the early church enjoyed before persecution from without and dissension from within began to trouble it. The preaching of the gospel has been such a success, and the church has grown so much! People are in awe, and the members of the church devote themselves to prayer, fellowship and praising God. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to seek to be added to that number? It is almost as if the church is running on auto-pilot, without any need for earthly leadership — just one big happy and growing family! Of course, they are happy in this way because at that early point they have put their whole trust in the one whom they know to be their true leader, the one who suffered for them, bearing their sins upon the cross, and healing them by his wounds. They have put their whole trust in the one who, when they were going astray like sheep, gathered them together as the shepherd and guardian of their souls.

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This Sunday is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The theme is referred to in our opening Collect, and in the selection of the 23rd Psalm. And it is true that later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But we miss Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel if we anticipate those verses.

In today’s gospel Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, but — twice no less — the “gate for the sheep.” Perhaps we are inclined to let our minds slip over this image because it is less evocative than that of a young shepherd carrying a lost sheep home on his shoulder, as in the hymn based on David’s most famous Psalm, which we’ll be singing later: “and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” But let us stick with Jesus’ image of the gate, looking at what the text actually says, and listening to Jesus as he teaches us — lest we too fall into the same trap of misunderstanding as his original hearers, who, as it says in today’s gospel, “did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Very well, then. Let’s try to do better. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and “I am the gate.” This means that he is the one through whom the sheep enter and leave, through whom they pass in to safety and out to pasture. As he also says (and we’ll hear this next week), I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. We are saved through him. He is the way; he is the gate. So if Jesus is the gate, who then, in this imagery, is the shepherd?

Let us again “look at the text” as my New Testament professor always used to say. What is written there? The shepherd is the one for whom the gate is opened, for the shepherd passes in and out with the sheep. The shepherd is not like the thief or bandit who doesn’t go through the gate (that is, through Jesus) but climbs in by another way. And the shepherd leads the sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep hear the shepherd, and, knowing and recognizing that voice, they follow the shepherd in and out of the gate, that is Jesus.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is showing that he chooses to share the work of the church — which is salvation — with other workers: with these shepherds. Jesus delegates part of his work to the apostles and they to their successors, the bishops, who also pass along the work to the priests and deacons who serve in the parishes, and who — in case you haven’t noticed my doing this — also seek to engage all of the members of the church — that’s you! — in taking up their share of the work. These are the shepherds for whom Jesus the gate is opened, who call the sheep by name, and who lead the sheep alternately to safety and to pasture, in and out, through the gate, which is Christ himself, whose body is the church.

As to the thieves and bandits, well, next week we will see Stephen — among the first of the deacons — dealing with some of the leaders who instead of bringing their people to salvation are getting in the way of the message, impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus too dealt with such leaders, to whom he said, Woe to you, who not entering yourselves have hindered others from entering!(Lk 11:52) And surely over the last two decades we’ve heard the sad and shocking tales of priestly misconduct, of those who abuse the little ones committed to their charge, and of bishops who as senior pastors fail to keep watch, and instead simply shuffle the crooked deck in a kind of ecclesiastical Three Card Monte. All I can say is, there will be a reckoning for those who take up the role of shepherd only to molest or harm the sheep.

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But let us, dear sisters and brothers, look on the bright side of Jesus’ challenge to us, the tremendous honor that our Lord does us by asking for our help, by opening himself up to us to pass in and out, by allowing us entry by the gate, to take up these tasks of ministry, to allow us to go out through the gate, out into the world to serve the needs of the world, and committing to us all of these tasks of leadership and care. It isn’t just the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons. The church has its lay members too, working in so many ways, who take up each their own tasks of teaching the young, taking roles in worship, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, those who maintain the physical facility of this building and other buildings, and those who undertake the work of hospitality in the heat of the kitchen — and that’s hard work, believe me. And also, and perhaps most importantly, all of you, as you go out into the world, a challenging world that is hungry not just for earthly bread, but for the word of God. All of these tasks are important, all of them require time and talent and treasure. And the church needs all of them, as they are delegated to each one by the power of the Holy Spirit working in each one to build up the church.

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There is an old story told of a steamboat helmsman and an engineer who got into an argument as to who was more important: the one who steered the boat or the one who kept the engine running so the boat could go. So they decided to trade places to see just how hard the other worked, and how important the other job was. After a couple of hours of running along fine, the ship came to stop, and the engineer, now up on the bridge, got on the horn to the helmsman, down in the boiler room. “The ship has stopped! Are you giving us full steam?” The helmsman responded from below, “The engines overheated and stopped running! I’m coming up.”

The engineer on the bridge smiled to himself, figuring he’d won the debate as to who was most important. But as the helmsman came to the bridge and looked out at the river, he smiled ruefully and said to the engineer, “Well, I guess I know now why the boat has stopped. You’ve run us aground on a sand-bar!”

The church is too important, my friends, to run aground over arguments about whose ministry is more important. The church is too important to allow a few bad priests to destroy people’s confidence in the rest who are good. The church is too important to be injured by bishops more interested in the church’s reputation than in the good of the flock. But the church itself — Christ’s body — is not too important for God in Christ to have committed its care into our less than perfect hands — all of us. He has chosen us to go in and out through him. Mark and Catherine our bishops, I as your priest, Tony and Eliza as our former deacons, and Mark Collins and Sahra Harding as seminarians here (and now priests themselves serving in other parishes) and each and all of you as readers and teachers and ushers and cooks and cleaners and welcomers and visitors and hosts and musicians and altar serves, and most importantly of all as members of this church going out into the world and spreading the news — each of us has been given a job and a ministry by God, by our Lord, the gate for the sheep, and all of us have been empowered to carry it out by the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can — through the power and grace of God, help move the church into something resembling those early days when they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Wouldn’t that be awesome! The church being the church — coming and going through the gate and all working ship-shape and in Bristol fashion.

So let us not lose heart, let us not lose faith. When the job seems daunting or beyond our capacity, let us always remember that the Lord who is Way, the Truth and Life will provide other servants through the gate, who will join in the work of building up God’s kingdom, day by day adding to the number being saved, being brought through the gate of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.+

In the beginning

SJF • 1 Epiphany A 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.+

January is the month of beginnings. We inherit from the pagan Romans the notion that it is the first month of the calendar year. Even its name, January, derives from Janus, the two-faced Roman God of doorways and gates, who simultaneously looks to the past and to the future. In the secular world, January is the month of inaugurations. Even in this era of rapid transportation and communication, and even though we elect presidents, senators, representatives, and governors in November, we don’t put them to work or into office until January, usually with a ceremonial inauguration and oath-taking.

And so it is that the church similarly commemorates the beginning of Christ’s ministry every January. The church telescopes the thirty years between his infancy portrayed at Christmas and Epiphany — his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the Magi to offer gifts to the newborn king — right up to his baptism in the Jordan River, so that our commemoration of the beginning of Christ’s three-or-so-year ministry always falls within the first two weeks of January, on the Sunday after January 6.

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Now, part of the reason for the telescoping of those 30 years is that apart from Luke’s brief account of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the Gospels are silent concerning what Jesus did, where he went, or who he knew during that whole time. It is with his baptism at the river Jordan that the story picks up again — remember that for both Mark and John this is where their accounts of the Gospel begins; only Matthew and Luke give us what film-script writers call “the backstory” — and both of them take it all the way back to Genesis, as they trace out the lineage of the House of David!

But the Gospel really becomes the Gospel with the beginning of the proclamation of the message of the Good News, as Peter says in Luke’s account in Acts, “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced.” It is this baptism that marks the inauguration of Christ’s ministry, with St Peter like a newsboy from the last century shouting out the Good News, a headline in only five words: “He is Lord of all.”

That headline is the heart of the Gospel, later reduced by the copy-editor Paul to just three words: “Jesus is Lord.” And it is at the Baptism of Jesus that this lordship is revealed — the first “epiphany” or “showing forth” of that divine truth, in fulfillment of all righteousness. For it is at the Baptism of Jesus that the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and the divine voice speaks out loud and clear. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Has any president ever had such an inauguration? Has any monarch ever had such a coronation? Has even any bishop or pope had such a consecration? All of these earthly ceremonial beginnings are mere shadows compared to the glory of God in majesty sending the Spirit of God to descend on Jesus Christ the Beloved Son of God, and literally speaking those words of blessing and benediction, a somewhat wordier proclamation of that same Gospel truth: Jesus is Lord.

That is the message — that is the Gospel — the apostles were sent to proclaim. As Peter says in today’s account in Acts, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” And his baptism is the first sign, the first epiphany, of that “ordination.” It is at the baptism that it all begins, and we ought to look to that beginning, that root and origin, if we are to grasp the significance of what Jesus Christ means to us.

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As you likely know, the study of word origins is called etymology. It looks to the roots and origins of the words we use, to show how words evolve over time, sometimes from one language to another, but often retaining a trace of their origins in spelling or form.

Let’s take that word gospel, for example. In its form and meaning it comes from two English words from the dim reaches of the Middle Ages: gode and spelle. Gode means “good” — that one’s a no-brainer — and spelle means “message.” (Nowadays the only spelle you hear about with any even distant connection to this original meaning is the kind of “spelle” cast by a Harry Potter. Although we New Yorkers may be familiar with the Yiddish equivalent for a salesman’s sales-pitch, spiel!)

So gospel comes from a Middle English phrase gode spelle meaning “Good Message” — thought perhaps in NY I could say, “good spiel” or as we say today, “it’s the Good News.” It is a literal translation of the Greek word that the Gospel writers used to describe their writings: evangelionev meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” — for the angels were God’s messengers. This is where our English word evangelist comes from: one who spreads the Good Message, the Good News. They are the newsboys of the Gospel, carrying it out into the street and shouting, “Listen! News! Good news! Jesus is Lord!”

So much for our language lesson! For if it is meaningful to look to origins to understand words in human language, it is equally appropriate for us to look to origins to understand Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And as the scripture assures us, it is at the Baptism of Jesus that his identity as Lord of all is confirmed and articulated, by the voice of God himself speaking from on high.

That voice affirms three things about Jesus: that he is God’s Son, that he is Beloved, and that God is wellpleased with him. God’s glory descends with God’s Spirit upon Jesus, which shows us, in Isaiah’s words, that this Beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased, is Lord, for God proclaims through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the Lord, that is my name, my glory I give to no other.” What clearer indication could we ask, what better inauguration could we hope for, than these words of promise from the Lord God speaking from heaven, this pure distillation of the Gospel, not news delivered by messengers or intermediaries or evangelists in this case, but by the very voice of God giving his glory to Jesus as Son of God and Lord of all; doing precisely what Isaiah promised that God would not do for anyone else.

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That message of the Lordship of Jesus has spread not only through Judea but through all the world — though still there are some who have not received it, and even many who do not believe it. And so it rests for us to continue that task of spreading the word, not only with our lips but in our lives: becoming messengers of God ourselves, each in our own way. And I will say that our lives and works are often more eloquent than our words — for if you are known to be a Christian, how you act will reflect on Christ himself. As St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” If we say that Jesus is Lord, then we must always seek to act in accordance with his lordship over our lives, our souls and bodies. Actions do speak louder than words, you know. Let us do his will in all that we undertake, now at the beginning of this year and through it and beyond, and we will by our actions — especially those actions of love, service and fellowship — proclaim that simple gospel message, Good News for our own good and for the benefit of others: the message that was sent to the people of Israel, and throughout the world, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all.+

Real Refreshment

SJF • Lent 4b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.+

The fourth Sunday in Lent goes by a number of different names. One of them is the Latin name Laetare, which basically means “lighten up.” That’s one of the reasons I change from purple to rose-colored vestments on this day, which is also sometimes called “Rose Sunday.” Coming as it does about halfway through Lent it’s meant to be a bit of a “stop to catch your breath” during the long march through an otherwise penitential season. For that reason, it is also sometimes called Refreshment Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have refreshments at coffee hour — at least not like the splendid luncheon we had last week courtesy of the choir. I’m happy to say, that luncheon raised$288 towards the church building fund. Now that’s refreshment!

The real refreshment in this Sunday celebration rests in the good news that we hear this morning — good news not only in the gospel where we expect to hear good news, but also in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. As I hope you recall, the last couple of weeks have had some pretty heavy messages about discipline and responsibility — about the work we are called upon to do and to carry out as Christians, whether it is in the form of duty to others, or in that cross we are called to take up day by day.

This Sunday gives us a moment to rest and reflect before we take up our burdens once again and continue walking that path of discipleship through the rest of Lent, and on through Holy Week. Today, in the gospel, Jesus tells the people to sit themselves down, to rest themselves for a bit, even it they are out in the middle of nowhere in a deserted place. And he prepares food for them, working with what seems at first to be an unpromising amount of ingredients, and yet feeding thousands and satisfying their hunger, giving them the strength to continue. It is a wonderful story and I’ve preached about it before.

However, rather than repeat myself I’d like to focus a bit on Saint Paul’s message this morning. “By grace you have been saved” — such an important message that Paul repeats it twice in that short passage. “By grace you have been saved.” There, now I’ve gone and done the same thing. But it is so well worth repeating — this simple phrase, by grace you have been saved — because as I have said before people often want to turn being saved into something that we think we do, rather than to accept it as something that God in Christ does for us.

And that is odd, because no one would him or herself take credit for being “saved from drowning.” Isn’t the whole point of being saved that it’s something that someone does for you, something you were not able to do yourself? There are times, of course, when you can save yourself — for instance, by heeding the fire alarm or the smoke alarm and rushing out of the building before the fire gets to you. But most of the time we hear of people being saved; it isn’t about them saving themselves but about other people saving them.

And in this case, we’re talking about being saved unto eternal life — Paul is reminding us that we have no power in ourselves to save ourselves. Turning back from our more refreshing language to what Paul said last week: you remember how he said, basically, “I can’t help it! The good I want to do, I cannot do; but the evil I do not want is what I do!”? And you will also recall his plaintive exclamation, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and his subsequent good news in response: “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Just as he wrote those words to the Romans so too he repeats the same sentiment to the Ephesians: this is about being rescued, being saved from something from which you can’t save yourself. This isn’t about smoke alarms or fire alarms; it’s about being carried unconscious from a burning building, or hauled by a helicopter from the tree into which you’ve climbed to escape the flood, even as the water rises around you.

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Now, you also know that the worst thing you can do when someone is trying to save you is to struggle with them — perhaps you’ve seen the films or TV shows where someone is trying to rescue a foundering swimmer from drowning and the drowning person struggles so much that the rescuer has to punch them in the jaw to get them to stop so that they can be saved.

And sometimes we too fight and struggle against being saved. Saint Paul knew something about that — remember how, when he still went by the name Saul, he started out as a zealous persecutor of the church, determined to wipe it out. You will also recall how Jesus appeared to him on that road to Damascus and literally knocked him down, and said to him, pityingly, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me; it is hard for you to kick against the goads.”Acts 26:14

The fact is, we sometimes make it harder than it is — and of course it will be hard if we think it is something we have to do for ourselves rather than something we allow God to do for us, to continue to do for us.

I’ve said before — I think I may have said it last week — how what God asks of us is so simple that it’s hard: loving God and our neighbors. And it’s the same with salvation. How does the old saying put it, “Let go and let God!” We often want to make it more complicated and harder than it is, as we kick against the goads in our own way.

Years ago, one of the big food companies — it might’ve been Betty Crocker, I’m not sure — came up with a packaged cake mix that was going to be revolutionary. Everything was complete in the box; all you had to do, literally, was add water. Well, it was a flop — people didn’t buy it because they simply couldn’t believe that everything was somehow
reduced to that powder in the box, and all you had to do was add water. So after a period of dismal sales the company adjusted the formula, took out a few of the ingredients, and then re-marketed the product with new instructions: in order to bake the cake, in addition to the water, you had to add one egg. And everybody was happy.

And so, because I know all of you — and I myself — want to be more active participants in our own salvation, even as we know and understand that we are not saving ourselves, but are saved by Christ — still, we want to do something; and the continued good news is that God gives us some things to do.

The normal thing to do, first of all, when someone rescues you and saves your life, at the very least, is to say, “Thank you.” And surely that is what we do here every Sunday in our worship — when we give thanks to God for all that he has done. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that the word Eucharist, the name for our celebration, means “giving thanks” — so thanks-giving is at the heart of our worship; not just on that Thursday in November, but every Sunday.

But if someone saves your life, you will probably want to do more than just thank them. And that is precisely and appropriately where those works come in, that Paul mentioned. Saint Paul is careful to note that our works do not save us — it is grace alone that saves us; as he says, “a gift of God, not the results of works, so that no one may boast.” But he goes on to say, “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our works have not saved us — God has — but primarily in order to put us to work! God, having saved us, has prepared good works for us to do — and God expects us to do them.

Doing good — loving God and our neighbor — is not the cause of our salvation but it’s result. We are able to do these good things because God has saved us; not merely as a way of giving thanks to God — although it is that — but as a way to spread the word to others that they really don’t need to add that egg to the recipe — that the box meant what it said: all that was needed was water, in which we are all baptized; salvation is freely offered to all, once and for all, through Jesus Christ.

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And that refreshing news is meant to empower us to take up our work once again — work not to earn salvation, but made possible because of salvation. It is as if every person rescued from drowning were to become a life-guard. For that is what we are; for that is what we are called to do, to assist in the work of saving others, by bringing them the good news that salvation has come. Salvation empowers us to get to work to spread the life-saving message that there is no need to go hungry in a world where a few pieces of bread and fish can be multiplied by a gracious God, to feed thousands. Salvation empowers us to spread the message that we need not despair when we feel discouraged or defeated; we need not struggle and fight against the rescuer who is carrying us on his shoulder gently laid, and brought home — where we can truly rejoice. We are empowered, all of us, to tell others that in the midst of trouble there is refreshment — there is a flowing fountain that rises in the middle of the desert, the source of a stream on whose banks grow trees whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.

We have been saved, brothers and sisters, saved and rescued, and refreshed. So come, let us worship; and then let us get to work.+