June 25, 2017

AngelJune252017

 

Proper 7 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger

 

Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."


These are difficult words to hear, particularly since only 5 chapters earlier in Matthew's Gospel we hear Jesus proclaiming, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God," and, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Additionally, Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace, a title applied to Christ as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6.

 

One could legitimately ask, "What's going on here? Where is Jesus, the Son of God who is love?" Love is at the heart of everything from God. And Jesus’ concern for the end of times is out of that love. When the end of times comes, our only preparation is devotion to God, above all else, even family.

 

I can't remember how it happened, but I came across a picture of Christ in Judgment. I think it was when I was looking for images to use during worship in my Campus Chapel. We followed our worship on PowerPoint, and the high church part of me wanted to engage as many senses as possible. This picture that I am passing around – I found it stunning. To me, it was like Christ coming down from Heaven with His sword of judgment. It also struck me that Jesus Himself doesn’t look angry or vindictive, yet He is wielding a sword. At the same time as wielding a sword, you can see that Jesus’ right hand is forming the sign of blessing, blessing upon the people. Christ’s judgment isn’t about death and destruction; it’s about salvation.


Once I found the image online, I discovered that the statue is in Chic ester Cathedral, a small roman village south of London with a thousand-year-old cathedral. I emailed the Chic ester Cathedral Gift Shop and ordered this print. I figured that I would never see that statue, because Chic ester was so far away (in UK terms) There was no reason for me to go down there. As with most statues in the UK, I imagined Jesus as being about 7-or-8-ft tall, and the statue even taller with the intimidating sword. I wondered what it would be like to stand underneath it, because you can tell from the photo that it is elevated.


The Cathedral website describes the statue:


“In the Cathedral statue, the figure of Christ, clad in his windblown burial shrouds, leans forward from a simple throne. With his right hand he blesses and draws the gentle and good to himself and with his left hand he holds aloft a sword. Christ’s hands and feet are marked with the wounds of the cross, and suspended above his head is a crown of thorns, appearing to us as both a halo and a crown of life symbolic of promise.”


In 2014, the Cathedrals’ Group of Universities held their annual Chaplains’ Conference and Choirs’ Festival in Chic ester. I was going to get to see this statue, after all. After wandering around this fairly small cathedral, I found the statue. I looked up, and the formidable character of the photograph…well…remained with the photograph. The statue is only 47” tall, and being about 15’ up the wall, it loses any sense of awe and wonder, so much so that I didn’t even take a photo of it. But I remain struck by this statue in its photo form. It speaks directly to the Gospel reading today.


This passage also makes us think “What is the soul?” when Jesus proclaims, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The former leaves space for the Eternal Life that Jesus offers us. The latter does not. It suggests that hell is the process or state of complete annihilation of being, which for Christians (and Jews of that time), the hope of Eternal Life is part of the foundation of both faith and life.


The Episcopal Church’s concept of ‘soul’ can be found in our liturgy. In the Book of Common Prayer Rite I Eucharistic Prayer I, it states, “here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies...” (BCP, p. 336). That suggests that, in our theology, the soul and the body are separate-but-one. Sure enough, The Episcopal Church defines the souls as “the spiritual nature of a human being, as distinguished from the bodily or physical nature.” But such thinking in Christianity has not always been clear or consistent.


The Episcopal Church’s teaching goes on to describe:


“The soul is understood to be directly created by God and immortal. It is meant to be united with a body. The soul is separated from the body at death, but understood to be capable of separate existence until reunited with a body at the resurrection of the dead. The BCP Catechism states that the resurrection of the body means that “God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being. . . .” (BCP, p. 862). In scholastic terms, this fullness of being is understood to include both the soul and a bodily nature. The modern understanding prefers to see body and soul as a substantive unity in which previous distinctions are blurred.”


This dire proclamation by Jesus can instill fear and confusion to the listeners. And it is meant to. Jesus has completed several acts of healing, and He has commissioned His Disciples, the story that we heard last week. That Commissioning directly precedes this proclamation. Jesus is making sure that the urgency of the new job of the Disciples is clear: They are to spread the news that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. As you may recall, Jesus told the Disciples that this was no easy task. In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to illustrate why this mission is of the utmost importance.


Matthew 11:1 – “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”


This message was critical. And this one line of scripture...we never get to hear this summer. But I think that it is important that we do, because it underscores that Jesus’ truly frightening proclamation is eschatological, about The Escalon: the coming of the end of the world. So, people need to know that the kingdom of heaven is near, so that they can lead a life after which God will raise them from death in the fulness of their being, and not destroy their soul once their body is dead. The key to this way of life is to follow Jesus: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me...those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus wants people to know that how they receive Jesus now has direct bearing on what happens in the future, at The Eschaton.


Paul understands the urgency and the depth of significance. He tells us that “if we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.” As I mentioned last week, for Paul, it us faith that is the key. But Jesus wants more. Jesus wants us to follow Him, to spread the Gospel. Faith is not enough. Love is almost not enough. We must love God more than we love our own families… we must “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies”. Jesus wants our soul… but it we who must offer it to Him through our love and devotion. It sounds extreme and very much like an altar call of charismatic evangelicals… but it is what Jesus wants… our souls in devotion to Him…our souls as signs of love.


In all 3 readings, we are reminded that there are people in God’s favor and people who are not. Jeremiah’s faith brings God to vanquish Jeremiah’s enemies. Jeremiah is good.
So, when we read these readings that make us wonder if God is truly the God of Love, we have to struggle to remind ourselves, that “Yes, God is Love!” It is a love so deep that we can neither understand nor attain it. That is Jesus’ frustration – that we humans struggle to both understand and attain a reciprocal love of God. But like with the statue of “Christ in Judgement” in Chichester Cathedral,


Christ is not only wielding a
sword, He is blessing us at the
same time.

 

Reach deep inside yourself to know the depth of your love for God through Christ Jesus. When receiving the Sacrament, know deep inside you the sacrifice Jesus made for you. And as you walk along your spiritual journey, know that judgment comes with blessing. And it is God from whom all blessings flow.

© 2017 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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