We Are What We Give

Corpus Christi (B)

I Cor.10:16-17
John 6:51-58

Today we are celebrating Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body of Christ, thanking God for his gift of the Eucharist. Addressing the young congregation in Corinth, St Paul defined the church in this way: “Think of us,” he says, “as servants of Christ and as stewards of the mysteries of God.” By the ‘mysteries of God,’ Paul meant the sacraments; so today we are celebrating the gift to us of these Holy Mysteries, and especially the sacred mystery that is the Eucharist.

God’s gift of himself in the Eucharist is inseparable from God’s gift of himself in the incarnate Word, Christ Jesus, who lived and died as one of us. We know that at a certain place and at a certain time in history, God gave his only begotten son “in order that the world might be saved through him.” In the Eucharist, God ensures that that gift of salvation was not something offered just that once, but is offered to us again and again in the Mass, the action of Holy Communion. Jesus saves! What does that bumper-sticker slogan actually mean? It means in and through Jesus, the Word made flesh, God invites us into a life shaped no longer by separation from God, but by communion with and in God’s eternal life.

We are ‘saved’ as our lives begin to be shaped by Communion rather than by separation. Remember the old list of the ‘capital sins’: greed, pride, wrath, sloth, envy, gluttony, tec. All these things are ‘sin’ because they turn us inward upon ourselves. They shape our lives therefore according to the belief that what I have defines what I am – and that sets up a system of competition and exclusion, fear that resources are scarce. In sin we act on the belief that I am my own private property, something I possess for myself. Sin thus separates us one from another. And what separates us from one another separates us from God, just as what separates us from God, separates us from each other. To believe that Jesus saves us from sin is to proclaim that Jesus invites us to share in God’s life, so that our lives might be shaped, no longer by what separates us, but by our Communion in God, Holy Communion.

Jesus saves, because by his life, death, and resurrection – by his sacrifice – he made himself the bridge joining our lives to God’s communal life. Jesus saves, because that bridge was made by his flesh and blood. Because God partook of our material life, God has made it possible for us to partake in his Spiritual life. Jesus saves because in the Eucharist, he offers us that bridge of his flesh and blood again and again: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life . . . (for) those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” These are surely some of the most difficult words ever spoken! And yet in them Jesus promises us in the most incarnate way possible what he promised his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Usually, the question of salvation gets framed in terms of something very individual, of whether or not I will go to heaven. We tend to think of heaven as the place where, when I die, I will go with all the other souls of saved individuals. These views tend to suite our politics of individual-responsibility and our economics of private property; and I suspect that is why they have hung on so persistently in the mind especially of the Church in North America. But if Christ came for the sake of Holy Communion, does it make sense to think of salvation as purely individual? What God has given us to understand in and through the gift of the Eucharist is that, just as Jesus became who he was by not grasping divinity for himself, but “emptying himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6-7), so our own being is defined and given not by what we have, but by what we give. I become myself, in other words, only as I Love and participate in the community of love. I become who I truly am as I give myself – to God, to my neighbour whom God loves, and to the world which God creates and nurtures. I am, we are, individuals only in and through Holy Communion.

This is difficult for us to understand. We have been taught to think that we can give only what we already have – and so the first order of the day must be to get things, to accrue wealth or power etc. to myself. But through Holy Communion, God instructs us otherwise: we become who we truly are only as we give ourselves away in love. The story of the widow’s mite is an excellent example of this. The widow who had nothing was singled out by Jesus, was counted by God – was ‘saved’ in other words – as she gave from what she did not have rather than from what she had. To give from nothing, you see, is to live in faith: it is to proclaim in one’s actions: ‘it is not what I have, but what God provides that gives me life and makes me who I am. It is grace.’ To know this, to live by this faith, is salvation and Holy Communion.

All this may sound very theological, but it is also very practical. The Eucharist is at one at the same time both a gift from God and a sacrifice to God.   As our ‘sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,’ we offer gifts of bread and wine and water, representing the most essential things for the sustenance of our bodies. These are as it were our widow’s mite for in them we acknowledge that what makes our life possible, full, and whole is not what we have to give, but we give only what we receive from God’s hand. We come to the altar, holding out our hands as mendicants, as one’s who have nothing except what God gives us to give, to receive the bread of life. And as Christ makes his body to dwell in our body, his blood in our blood, so we are united, all who partake of this bread, as one body. This is Holy Communion: All in Christ and Christ in all and all in all. Hallelujah!

Finally, we are sent from this place with the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Our Holy Communion spreads out in time and space. We are to love, to give ourselves to God and to one another and all whom God puts in our way. For that is eternal life – that service, that self-giving, is salvation.

So it is fitting that on the day we celebrate Corpus Christi that we honour Alana as she retires from long service heading up the Altar Guild. It is fitting not only because the main focus of her work and the work of the Altar Guild is to ready the altar and sanctuary for the celebration of Holy Communion. But it is a good day also and especially because she has given so much of herself to this work of love; and in that love God’s salvation has worked in and through her as grace, which we have all received. And so we give thanks to God for Alana today, and pray for the continuing stewardship of the mysteries of God here in this place. It is these gifts that make us who we are.

AMEN.

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Perfect Communion

Trinity Sunday

Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Well, here we go. It comes around every year: the dreaded ‘Trinity Sunday’ sermon. Actually, we should not be afraid. It should be as natural for us to speak of God by the name of Trinity as it is to call on him by the name of Love. To speak of God by the name of Trinity is to understand that relationship or community is the ground and meaning of reality, of all that is. No being comes to be not already in relationship.   We are not given to ourselves in the first place as isolated individuals, but we are given to be in relationship; and it is only through relationship – most importantly our relationship with God who is from eternity both perfect community and perfect unity – that we come to be our individual selves.

As Christians, we know God as Trinity because the fundamental Christian experience is the experience that salvation (the overcoming of the separation between God and the world) is offered to us and completed in Jesus Christ; that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that the world might be saved through him.”   We know God as Trinity, moreover, because we experience God’s Spirit, dwelling within us, inviting us to share in the same Spirit of loving intimacy which the Father shares with the Son. In St Paul’s words, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit, that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-17).   Fellow heirs with Christ! If only we could allow that promise to permeate all of our actions and decisions! It is our invitation to live within the perfect communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the invitation to live in perfect communion with all that is.

Sometimes, my head spins with the wonder of it all – the audacity of the theologians who first dared to put language to these things. To insist, for example, that the word ‘Trinity’ does not just say something about our experience of God, “but says something essential “about the mystery of God’s eternal being.”[1] It is fashionable today to say that the greatness of God forbids any one faith to claim a privileged understanding of the being of God. There is of course much wisdom in that caution. But neither can we take it to be an absolute rule. To do so would be to maintain that our experiences of God have nothing to do with the reality of God, the God behind those experiences. But to assert that there is an unbridgeable gap between our experience of God and the being of God is to destroy the ground of faith. We trust that God reveals himself to us as God truly is – in creation, in the word spoken through the prophets, and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus his son. So to call upon the name of God as Trinity is not to formulate some impossibly difficult logical puzzle. It is a prayer, a statement of faith: that God is who God reveals himself to be – self-giving, outward-turning, loving from eternity.

Catherine Lacugna, in her well-known book on the Trinity, expresses this faith in beautiful words. To call upon God by the name of Trinity, she says, is to believe that:

God cannot be anything but personal. . . . God alone exists at every moment in perfect communion. God alone is both unoriginated and the origin of everything; God alone is incorruptible love; God alone cannot perish; God alone can thoroughly empty Godself without ceasing to be God; God alone never succumbs to isolation and withdrawal; God alone exists in right relationship; God alone is infinitely related to every last creature, past, present, and future.[2]

To say these things about God, to make positive statements about who God is and how God acts, is also to speak about our belief about who we are. To call upon God by the name of Trinity, in other words, is to hear ourselves called into a certain kind of life. To quote Lacugna again, if:

the ultimate source of all reality is not a ‘by-itself’ or an ‘in-itself’ but a person, a toward-another . . . (If) The ultimate ground and meaning of being is therefore communion among persons; (if) God is ecstatic, fecund, self-emptying out of love for another, a personal God who comes to self through another[3]

 then what sort of people ought we to be? How ought we to live? How might our lives reflect and participate in that “ecstatic, fecund, self-emptying love” that is the ground and meaning of being?

One thing we can say already: we are not called to be these things alone. That is why we are here, now, together. We are here because we experience God as Trinity. We are here because we desire that our lives reflect that perfect communion – with one another, with all that is. We assemble here to practise how to be real persons in real community; we come here to practise love for one another and for God’s holy and beautiful world.

Very practically speaking, one way we practise this love, this Trinitarian life together, is through our Sunday Lunches. Last week I included the lunches in a short list of ways in which I believe our parish acts as a prophetic community – that is, modelling an alternative way of being to the dominant culture around us. Trinitarian life is prophetic because it challenges the prevailing ethos of our society, the ethos one political scientist called possessive individualism. The Sunday Lunches are Trinitarian and prophetic because they challenge the ethos which maintains that possessive individualism reflects the really real. The lunches insist that, no! There is another way, a way that reflects the being and ways of God – the way of hospitality, of mutual sharing, of creative generosity, of self-giving – not only for those we know and like, but for all. If we see the Sunday lunches as just something nice we do for ourselves, then let’s forget them. But if we see the Sunday lunches as practising Trinitarian faith, as practising perfect communion with and for one another and for all whom God sends our way, then let us make the lunches a priority, both as a community and as individuals. Let us make sure each one of us is doing whatever he or she can to ensure that this ministry thrives in the Holy Spirit. Let us, each one, practise generous self-giving in our active support of the lunches.   Right now, too few of us actively seek ways to support the ministry. Too few of us anxiously look around for the sign-up sheets when we go into the hall – before we line up for food. The Sunday Lunches are a precious and prophetic example of the way we practice our Trinitarian faith. I am asking us all, not just to lend a hand when asked, but actively to seek out ways to ensure the prophetic voice of this ministry does not falter but moves from strength to strength.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

AMEN.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973), 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 301

[3] Ibid., p. 14

Can These Bones Live?

Pentecost
Ezek. 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This is the Day of Pentecost. On this day we retell the story of how the Spirit of God brought Church came into being – the same Holy Spirit which continues to sustain the Church in its life of faith and witness.   ‘Pentecost’ is the Greek word for the Jewish festival called in Hebrew Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the day God gave the Torah, or Law, to Moses. It was one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals – and that is the reason why in the Book of Acts we read of their being so many foreigners in Jerusalem representing so many nations and languages – Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphlia, Egypt and Libya and Rome. All these were pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival. Luke mentions them all because he wants to emphasise that God chose this Pentecost festival to pour out his Spirit on the apostles precisely because of the tremendous diversity of people gathered there.

The Spirit was poured out in a rush of wind and tongues of fire, and the apostles suddenly began to speak in such a way that each of those foreigners understood what the apostles were saying as if hearing each in his or her own mother tongue. They were amazed and asked one another, “What does this mean?” Suddenly, they were being addressed in language that did not separate them, but united them. Suddenly, the divisions wrought upon the world as a consequence of the Towel of Babel, the breaking of humanity into many nations and races and languages, were undone. Right from the start, the Church transcended the natural differences that divide us one from another: nationality, race, language, socio-economic class. The church was given to be one Body with a diversity of members, members bound not by natural affinity, but by the life breathed into it by the Spirit of Christ.

How the words that the apostles spoke had this unifying power is hinted at by the fact that each person heard as if he were being addressed in his or her mother tongue. We are meant to understand, I believe, that the mother tongue of the whole human race is the Word of God – for it is this Word that is closest to our inmost heart; it is the ‘language’ through which the world and our relationship to it is most profoundly and essentially given to us. When the people responded to the Apostles speaking, each as if in his mother tongue, the miracle was not so much that the Apostles (who spoke Aramaic) could suddenly speak many different languages; the miracle is that all those different people suddenly understood that what the apostles were saying was intended for them – intimately, directly, with no separation between the act of hearing and the act of understanding. For the apostles began to prophesy – which means simply that they began to speak the word of truth. This truth addressed each one of those pilgrims intimately and directly, uniting them into one body, for the truth they heard was the Word of Love:

And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams . . .

 To Prophesy means to speak truth in the Holy Spirit. Truth is always divisive, in the same way that light always banishes darkness from itself. And truth is always unifying since, like a paring knife, truth cuts away all that is unessential – and thus compels us to put aside differences we once thought to be essential, but now understand to be only relative. Prophesy, speaking the demands of Love by the Spirit of Love, is always life-giving for those with ears to hear since, like an electrical shock, when it touches the apparently lifeless heart, that heart suddenly springs to life.

Today we heard Ezekiel’s powerful poem, the valley of the dry bones, because it is a metaphor for the church in every age. Ezekiel was speaking to the exiles in Babylon – Israelites forced off the land God had promised to them. It was their relationship to this land which they believed defined them as God’s people (that is, as the Church). Ezekiel tells this exiled Church of a vision God had given him. The Lord led him into a valley. “Very many bones (were) lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” And God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” This was, of course, the question God wanted his exiled people to hear. And it is the question God wants us to hear, the Church of our generation: “can these bones live?”

I hear so much hand-wringing about the state of the Church; so much fear that the Church is dying or drifting into obscurity, no longer needed or relevant. And I hear so much panic: we have to DO something! “Christianity must change or die!” We have to change what we believe, change how we worship, throw out the hymn books! But what does God tell Ezekiel? Only this: “Prophesy to these bones.” In other words, do not forget who and whose you are; but speak truth to them – speak to them of the demands of the Love we know in the face of Christ crucified and raised; recall them to the Spirit of faith which first gave them life.

Perhaps God has been paring down his church because the Church has grown very dry. The voice of the Church over many years has been so mixed up with the voices of worldly power, that it lost its distinctively prophetic tone; the Church could no longer speak truth to power because it was so deeply aligned with power. It lost its voice for it lost its breath. But God is again calling his Church as he called Ezekiel: prophesy! “I will cause breath/wind/spirit (the Hebrew word Ruach means all three) to enter you and you shall live.”

“So I prophesied,” Ezekiel continues, “and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” When Ezekiel spoke truth to those bones – truth of why they found themselves in exile, yet also of the continuing love and faithfulness of God – what was separated and scattered became again a living body. It seems to me that the noise of the children leading today’s service, the reading and the greeting and the playing and the dancing – is the wonderful sound of the rattling of bones and of new life coming – and indeed, already here. God is putting his Ruach within us, and we shall prophesy: the Friday Communion, the River, this very service of Holy Communion, even our Sunday lunches are all prophetic acts insofar as they are works of Love which break down the barriers of wealth, race, privilege, even language, by which the world separates us. And as we do these things, as we prophesy, so shall we live. In Jesus’ name,

AMEN

Can These Bones Live?

Ezek. 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This is the Day of Pentecost. On this day we retell the story of how the Spirit of God brought Church came into being – the same Holy Spirit which continues to sustain the Church in its life of faith and witness.   ‘Pentecost’ is the Greek word for the Jewish festival called in Hebrew Shavuot. Shavuot celebrates the day God gave the Torah, or Law, to Moses. It was one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals – and that is the reason why in the Book of Acts we read of their being so many foreigners in Jerusalem representing so many nations and languages – Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphlia, Egypt and Libya and Rome. All these were pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival. Luke mentions them all because he wants to emphasise that God chose this Pentecost festival to pour out his Spirit on the apostles precisely because of the tremendous diversity of people gathered there.

The Spirit was poured out in a rush of wind and tongues of fire, and the apostles suddenly began to speak in such a way that each of those foreigners understood what the apostles were saying as if hearing each in his or her own mother tongue. They were amazed and asked one another, “What does this mean?” Suddenly, they were being addressed in language that did not separate them, but united them. Suddenly, the divisions wrought upon the world as a consequence of the Towel of Babel, the breaking of humanity into many nations and races and languages, were undone. Right from the start, the Church transcended the natural differences that divide us one from another: nationality, race, language, socio-economic class. The church was given to be one Body with a diversity of members, members bound not by natural affinity, but by the life breathed into it by the Spirit of Christ.

How the words that the apostles spoke had this unifying power is hinted at by the fact that each person heard as if he were being addressed in his or her mother tongue. We are meant to understand, I believe, that the mother tongue of the whole human race is the Word of God – for it is this Word that is closest to our inmost heart; it is the ‘language’ through which the world and our relationship to it is most profoundly and essentially given to us. When the people responded to the Apostles speaking, each as if in his mother tongue, the miracle was not so much that the Apostles (who spoke Aramaic) could suddenly speak many different languages; the miracle is that all those different people suddenly understood that what the apostles were saying was intended for them – intimately, directly, with no separation between the act of hearing and the act of understanding. For the apostles began to prophesy – which means simply that they began to speak the word of truth. This truth addressed each one of those pilgrims intimately and directly, uniting them into one body, for the truth they heard was the Word of Love:

And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams . . .

To Prophesy means to speak truth in the Holy Spirit. Truth is always divisive, in the same way that light always banishes darkness from itself. And truth is always unifying since, like a paring knife, truth cuts away all that is unessential – and thus compels us to put aside differences we once thought to be essential, but now understand to be only relative. Prophesy, speaking the demands of Love by the Spirit of Love, is always life-giving for those with ears to hear since, like an electrical shock, when it touches the apparently lifeless heart, that heart suddenly springs to life.

Today we heard Ezekiel’s powerful poem, the valley of the dry bones, because it is a metaphor for the church in every age. Ezekiel was speaking to the exiles in Babylon – Israelites forced off the land God had promised to them. It was their relationship to this land which they believed defined them as God’s people (that is, as the Church). Ezekiel tells this exiled Church of a vision God had given him. The Lord led him into a valley. “Very many bones (were) lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” And God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” This was, of course, the question God wanted his exiled people to hear. And it is the question God wants us to hear, the Church of our generation: “can these bones live?”

I hear so much hand-wringing about the state of the Church; so much fear that the Church is dying or drifting into obscurity, no longer needed or relevant. And I hear so much panic: we have to DO something! “Christianity must change or die!” We have to change what we believe, change how we worship, throw out the hymn books! But what does God tell Ezekiel? Only this: “Prophesy to these bones.” In other words, do not forget who and whose you are; but speak truth to them – speak to them of the demands of the Love we know in the face of Christ crucified and raised; recall them to the Spirit of faith which first gave them life.

Perhaps God has been paring down his church because the Church has grown very dry. The voice of the Church over many years has been so mixed up with the voices of worldly power, that it lost its distinctively prophetic tone; the Church could no longer speak truth to power because it was so deeply aligned with power. It lost its voice for it lost its breath. But God is again calling his Church as he called Ezekiel: prophesy! “I will cause breath/wind/spirit (the Hebrew word Ruach means all three) to enter you and you shall live.”

“So I prophesied,” Ezekiel continues, “and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone.” When Ezekiel spoke truth to those bones – truth of why they found themselves in exile, yet also of the continuing love and faithfulness of God – what was separated and scattered became again a living body. It seems to me that the noise of the children leading today’s service, the reading and the greeting and the playing and the dancing – is the wonderful sound of the rattling of bones and of new life coming – and indeed, already here. God is putting his Ruach within us, and we shall prophesy: the Friday Communion, the River, this very service of Holy Communion, even our Sunday lunches are all prophetic acts insofar as they are works of Love which break down the barriers of wealth, race, privilege, even language, by which the world separates us. And as we do these things, as we prophesy, so shall we live. In Jesus’ name,

AMEN

You Shall Be My Witnesses

The Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Why do we find those paintings of the apostles staring up at the disappearing soles of Jesus’ feet often a bit comical? Perhaps it’s because we no longer share the same faith in the story as the painters who painted them. We find the paintings funny because we are a little bit embarrassed by our tradition’s insistence that the story is important. At the same time, we can find the story of Jesus’ ascension troubling. After all it marks Christ’s disappearance from the earth. From the point of his ascension, the apostles have to relate to Jesus in an entirely different way. From that point on, his absence must somehow be reckoned as a precondition of his presence among us.

Let’s consider that statement a little: that from his ascension onwards, Christ’s absence must be reckoned as a precondition of his presence. St. Luke, in the Book of Acts and in the Gospel bearing his name, emphasizes two words in both of his accounts of Jesus’ ascension: the word “power” and the word “witness”: “You shall receive power,” he writes, “when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” Jesus tells his disciples that he must depart if they are to become what he intended for them to become from the outset: witnesses to his Gospel and the new life God offers the world in his name.

But why did Jesus have to depart from them? Wouldn’t the world have been a better, more loving ad peaceful place if he remained? Actually, the opposite would be true. If Jesus continued to live on earth in his resurrection body, undying generation after generation, he would end up violating the divine gift of freedom he came to share. If Christ manifested his Godhead in too visible a form, our relationship to him would become one not of faith but of knowledge; and so we would inevitably make him into the Tyrant of Nations, a title which he once harshly rejected. To love us, and to set us free for the task of love, he had to depart.

And as he departed, he promised that the same Holy Spirit which anointed him would anoint us. Not so that individually any of us would or could become what he was, but so that together we might be the church. Jesus had to leave us because if he had stayed his very presence would have enslaved us. How could we but have turned to him for everything? But after his ascension he is present in an entirely different way. Now he is present in and through his Church whenever and wherever it “witnesses” his suffering, his rising from the dead, his Gospel of repentance and forgiveness that are inseparable from those events. Moreover, the church is the church, I think it is safe to say, only insofar as it practises this task of witness.

Nowadays we think of a witness as a passive observer, someone who just happens to be ‘in the right place at the right time’ to catch some news-worthy event on his or her cell phone. But when Jesus tells his disciples, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem . . . and to the ends of the earth,” he is not asking the disciples simply to tell others what they saw him do and heard him say – although that story-telling is certainly important. Rather, Jesus is saying that to witness is to live the new life of the Gospel, inviting others to do the same. The church is the community tasked with practising this new life: the community empowered by his Spirit to suffer for the world and at the hands of the world in his name; the community empowered to seek out the wounded and broken places of this world and so in Jesus’ name confront the principalities which dominate the surrounding culture; the community empowered to devote its life to loving God and neighbour – rather than its own security, authority, or pleasure. So witness does not simply recall an event that took place in the past, but in our witness Christ is effectively and truly present, here and now.

Recently, someone gave me a copy of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am reading it with a mixture of fascination and discomfort. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor imprisoned and eventually killed by the Nazi’s for his part in a resistance movement that had plotted to murder Hitler. The book maps out the rise of the Third Reich and especially the rise of the ‘Reichkirche,’ the established church of Germany molded by the Nazi’s to reflect the values and intentions of Hitler’s Reich. You can see how these well-intentioned people, clergy, theologians, lay leaders – concerned, yes, with things like the Aryan Paragraph which forbid Jewish Christians any participation in the German Church (the equivalent of the Church of England) – by looking for balance and compromise, watered down their protests, unable to agree amongst themselves on where exactly to take a stand. The results of their internal debating – of their inability to look directly at the horror which seems to us now so obviously right in front of them, of their need always for more proof of their suspicions before deciding upon an action, of their inability to make a decision and to take a stand – were worse than disastrous. One could even argue that it was from a certain understanding of love that they did not take a stand – after all, they sought not to insist on their own convictions, but wanted to be conciliatory and fair. But the truth is, it was the typically modern embarrassment of the leaders of the church to witness the faith of the church: that Christ died and rose again, that resulted in the assimilation of the German Church by the Nazi’s. Their failure to witness Christ resulted in the horrors of the extermination camps. The church failed to witness Christ; and the kingdom of death overtook a whole nation.

What discomforts me when reading is not just my knowledge of how history played out. What horrifies me is that all the debate within the German Church, the anxiety about taking a stand, the apologies for its faith, reminds me of our church. It makes me wonder what forces of evil there might be at work right in front of us that we fail to see and fail to confront because the meekness of or faith means we have lost our ability to witness Christ in and for the world: to take a stand, perhaps to suffer, certainly to risk uncertainty for the sake of truth. Today God has set aside to remind us, his people, that Jesus ascended so that he might continue to live in and through the witness of his church. May we be given eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts emboldened by his resurrection, to witness, to take a stand in his name, never to fail him and so never to be left to grieve, when it is too late, what went so terrifyingly wrong.

AMEN

Church, state and the silence of God’s presence

By Fr. Travis O’Brian
St. Barnabas Church Victoria, Rector 

Earlier this week I heard on the radio that the Supreme Court of Canada had ordered the city of Saguenay in Quebec to stop its practice of saying a short prayer before its meetings.  It also awarded atheist complainant Alain Simoneau, who had pursued the matter in the courts, over $33,000 in ‘damages.’  Mr. Simoneau had argued that the practice of reciting the prayer violated his rights as a non-believer and also Canada’s constitution as a secular state.  Apparently, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed.  In its ruling, the Court said that Canadian society has evolved to include:

a concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs. . . . The state must instead remain neutral in this regard . . .  This neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non-belief. It requires that the state abstain from taking any position and thus avoid adhering to a particular belief. . . . When all is said and done, the state’s duty to protect every person’s freedom of conscience and religion means that it may not use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.

This ruling, I feel, is mistaken in its philosophical presuppositions because it has confused silence with neutrality.  By making only silence lawful, by in effect trying to ‘silence’ the presence of God within the counsellor’s deliberations about the present and future good of the city, it seems to me that the Court has rather decided in favour of atheism, and not of ‘neutrality.’  I am very uncertain, in fact, whether neutrality in these matters is even possible.  The Court has come down on the side of “individual freedom.”  But what if that very commitment to ‘individual freedom’ as the highest good, or the good which (at least in this case) trumps every other concern, in fact violates the conscience of religious faith itself?  The mayor argued that the prayer honoured the Catholic heritage of Quebec: he argued, in other words, that community must come before individualism.  This is a Christian perspective, incompatible with the one the Court decided in favour of.  Parents who say they do not bring their children to church because they want their kids to ‘choose for themselves’ make the same mistake.  Silence is not neutral, but is itself a choice.

The Feast of the Resurrection

Acts 10: 34-43
John 20: 1-18

LIVING RESURRECTION

Alleluia.  Christ is Risen

The Lord is Risen indeed.  Alleluia

A joyous welcome to you all on this most holy of days.  Especially we welcome the family and friends who have come to celebrate the baptisms of Violet, Isabelle, and Clementine Townend.  Three sisters all on one Easter day!  Welcome to St Barnabas on this happy occasion.

Today we celebrate a work of unimaginable grace.  We come here this morning to express amazement and thanksgiving – that in the resurrection of Christ Jesus the whole earth receives again God’s word of blessing over his creation: ‘it is very good.’  Despite all that is ugly and evil, despite all the suffering and cruelty: ‘it is very good.’  Doesn’t the world need to hear that now?  Christ’s resurrection is God’s promise to the world that suffering and cruelty and death do not have the last word, but the first word and the last is God’s Word, and that Word is Love.  Today God invites us to share in the life of that Love.  Today God invites us to live in the power of Christ’s resurrection.  Today God invites us into faith.  Faith in the resurrection of Jesus does not mean simply to assent to a bit of the creed.  To have faith in Christ’s resurrection is rather to trust that the power which made the impossible possible is alive in our lives and in the world – right now.  Faith is devoting oneself to reflecting that endless Life in our own; it is opening our hearts so that we might reflect that self-emptying Love in all that we do.

So I would say that resurrection faith, like love, is more something we do than something we have.  Faith is more a verb than a noun.  That is the secret in St Paul’s advice, to “pray without ceasing.”  He means our whole life should become a prayer, dedicated to reflecting God’s endless Life in our life and His self-giving love in our love.  He means that if we truly believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we no longer need to fight to secure a future for ourselves, fight for ‘our place in the world,’ fight to have what others have – and if at all possible, slightly more and slightly better.  Today God invites us to die to all of that: to our need to find meaning and purpose and life in how we appear in the mirror of the world.  For to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to know that Life is not there.  To believe in the resurrection is rather to know that life begins precisely where the world is convinced that life comes to an end: not in saving oneself, but in spending oneself; not in mastery of life and circumstance, but in grace.

What a liberation!

Listen!  Those ancient events – Jesus’ birth, ministry, execution and his resurrection – they all happened over a span of time.  They had a beginning, middle, and an end.  But to live in faith is to know that, in the Spirit, they have no end.  In eternity they play out across the world and, through faith, in our own lives again and again.  Wherever God is, Christ is being born, he is ministering to the sick, he is eating with tax collectors, he is being whipped and spat upon and nailed to the cross, his body is being wept over and prepared for burial; and, in the pre-dawn darkness, God is raising Jesus from the dead.  Listen!  Christ’s resurrection is finished in time, but not in eternity!  It will not be finished until the whole universe, all things visible and invisible – the ugly and beautiful alike; the joyous and the suffering, the just and the unjust, all alike – are united to him in a death like his: his Cross! So that they may be united to him in a life like his: his resurrection!  Listen: God is calling us, even from the Cross!  It is time for faith.  Even now Christ is dying and rising and we are being invited into that death in order to be made part of that life.  In Christ’s resurrection, God says: I am Love which brings being from nothing, light from darkness, life from death, possibility from impossibility.  I am Love, the first Word and the last.

So Easter is an invitation.  “Easter says to us: have faith!”  In the words of Michael Ramsey, once archbishop of Canterbury:

Faith . . . is like when the women came to the tomb while it was still very dark, and they wondered who could move away the stone as it was very heavy: and look: the stone is gone![1]

Faith is action by which we turn from self-reliance to relying on God.

Faith, for one, is to give our selves to God in and through the sacrament of baptism.  That is why we are so happy that Violet and Isabelle and Clementine are being baptized today.  In baptism, “we die with Christ.”  The person we struggle to be in the mirror of the world, we give that fight to God, knowing, just as Christ did, that the person we are in truth is who we are in the mirror of God. And it is that person who God raises up to share in his eternal life.

And we live in the promise of resurrection when we love our neighbour: when we put aside our own comforts, security, fears, prejudices, and agendas to attend to the poor, the suffering, the lost and the godless.  When we make ourselves nothing for Christ, God makes us everything in Christ.

And we live Christ’s resurrection when, failing God’s invitation; realizing that we remain all too-much wrapped in ourselves and our self-concerns: we come and kneel before him at his altar.  There, we offer our whole selves, holding out our hands to receive him – and he never fails to come and to receive us.  He is still dying for us; he is still being raised for us; he is still healing us.  Christ never stops loving us – not even death can stop him.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

The Lord is Risen indeed.  Alleluia.

[1] Dales, Rowell, et al., Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 57.