Ordinary Times

The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a clue for understanding the Church’s liturgical year, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.[i] This verse reminds us that God created order and seasons with limits at the very heart of His creation, and that each of these seasons or times has a purpose that manifests and makes present the Kingdom in a particular way.  It may be the annual progression of the seasons of spring to summer to fall and to winter, or it may be seasons of distress or joy, feasting or fasting, remembering or putting into action.  Each and every one season has a purpose; each and every one is important.

In today’s English, the word ordinary makes us think of something that is not special or distinctive, and because of this we may be prone to think that Ordinary Times refer to those parts of the Church year that are not important.  But the fact that this time makes up the majority of the Church year (33 to 34 Sundays of our year) should tell us otherwise.  There are two periods of Ordinary Time, the shorter running from the celebration of Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, and the second longer period from Pentecost Sunday to the First Sunday of Advent.  Because the celebration of Resurrection Sunday varies from year to year, the season after Epiphany varies between 4 and 9 Sundays, and the season after Pentecost varies between 23 and 28 Sundays.

So much for counting Sundays, why are these Sundays placed where they are and what purpose do they play in our congregational life?  To understand Ordinary Times, we must look first at what “bookends” each period.  The book ends in each case are the annual portrayal of the central mysteries of our faith, the incarnation of Jesus, His death, His resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.  The season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany proclaim the truth that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…to redeem”[ii] and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”[iii]  The Sundays of Ordinary Times after Epiphany are intended to convince us that God’s deliverance has broken into our world through His Son.  It is intended to lay to rest forever in our hearts the question of who Jesus is, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”[iv]  The answer proclaimed to us is a resounding “This is the Chosen Deliverer of God, hear Him, believe Him.”

The Sundays after Epiphany end with Ash Wednesday and the observance of Lent and our journey to the cross, the empty tomb, a mountain in Galilee, and an upper room in Jerusalem.  This is the annual retelling of the story of our redemption, of our adoption as God’s children, of the mystery of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us.  The season of Lent, Holy Week, Resurrection Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost echo the Apostle Paul’s words, “Now I would remind you…of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to …the twelve.”[v] 

In these days we celebrate the specific, historic, supernatural acts of God that have brought about the salvation and deliverance of creation.  By contrast, during the Ordinary Time from Pentecost to Advent we celebrate what God has done through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live out the gospel message day to day in the context of our ordinary lives.  It is during this season that we recognize that Jesus continues to bring grace and deliverance to the world by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the church.  We might consider the church year from Advent to Pentecost as the proclamation of the good news of God’s love, grace, and deliverance; and the church year from Pentecost to Advent as the Acts of the Apostles, wherein God moves through the followers of His Son to bring in the kingdom in all its fullness.  This season is intended to remind us that our calling is to take the witness of who Jesus is and what He has done to the uttermost parts of our world.

We are not created to live on mountaintops where the view is spectacular, the light brilliant, and the air rarified.  We are called to make our dwelling in the valleys and plains where the rest of the world dwells and to work out salvation while seeking theirs.  The “mountain top” holy days provide vision, inspiration, and calling; it is in the ordinary times of the year that the leaven of the gospel is able to act.  Perhaps a quick illustration will help us understand the purpose and use of Ordinary Times.

The extraordinary acts of God to bring deliverance to our world are often likened to a seed that is sown.  Planting times were a time of celebration because the seasons had turned and the prospect of bringing forth new life from the earth was everywhere.  So too, the times of harvest were celebrations as the fruit of the fields were brought into the storehouse in abundance.  But in between planting and harvest, between seed time and fruitfulness, were weeks and weeks of watering, thinning, tending, weeding.  It was in this in-between time that the success and bounty of the seeds sown were actually brought about.  God has sown the precious seed of the gospel in our hearts, Ordinary Times allow us to care for it, nurture it, and see it come to maturity within our hearts achieving not just another cycle of time, but something that reaches into eternity.

End Notes

[i] Ecclesiastes 3:1

[ii] Galatians 4:4-5

[iii] John 1:14

[iv] Matthew 11:3

[v] I Corinthians 15:1-5

A Parable for Today

Sometimes I hear God speak in parables to me, not in words but in the things that surround me.  Recently I had one of those moments as I was mowing my lawn.  You see, I have one of those “typical” Vermont lawns that are a mix of four varieties of actual grass (none of which match), at least that many kinds of broadleaf weeds, some well-established clover, the perennial dandelions, a smattering of Indian paintbrush, an occasional nettle, and other things that I don’t even recognize.  And this lawn could be a source of frustration to me if I was a perfectionist who was obsessed with fertilizing and reseeding it, digging out everything that I thought did not belong, setting its exact limits and layout, and never being satisfied until it was uniform and manicured, a lawn that met all of my expectations and preferences.  But I am no longer that person.  I look at the lawn and I have a certain satisfaction in its variety and content…it always grows and needs frequent mowing, it is mostly green, there are very few bare spots, and it seems to tolerate seasons of both rain and dryness without dying out.

And it was at that moment that I recognized that what was true of my lawn, was true of my community, my nation, my world, my church.  None of these venues will ever fully meet my expectations, I will never find a uniformity of belief, or opinion, or lifestyle.  And that diversity could continuously vex my soul, or it could simply be the reality that I have to live in by the grace of God and to the best of my abilities, trying, as the Apostle Paul said, to live at peace with every person so far as that possibility is present in me.  As Jesus taught in the gospel, I cannot seek to justify myself by asking the question “And just who is my neighbor?”  I have no other option than to love each and every neighbor as I love myself, regardless of whether I agree with them, like them, or even have anything in common with them.  They do not answer to me anyway, they belong to Jesus and He has already warned us that there are wheat and tares growing up side by side but that this does not bother God as much as it seems to bother me.  I have come to realize that I no longer wish to be fighting a constant war with a world that Jesus came to save.  There will come a day when all things are made clear and when the final sorting out takes place, but that task is given to Jesus, not me.  My part is simply to love my neighbor as myself; in doing that I find that I find that I also love and honor God with every part of my life and being.

Fairy Tales and Real Life

Have you ever read your children a fairy tale and come to the final words, “And they lived happily ever after”, and paused to consider the implications of such a bold statement?  Too often we are consumed with the everyday concerns of life that we fail to see that it is a whole story that we live out, divinely authored, and with a certain end in mind.  Now, I’m not implying that life is like a fairy tale, or am I?  Consider this tale for a moment.

Long ago two people, our ancestors far removed, by the name of Adam and Eve, inhabited a veritable Paradise on earth.  Not a bad place to start a fairy tale in the grand tradition of such stories.  In this Paradise they communed with God, were clothed in immortality, had divine knowledge infused into their nature, and were free from all pain and suffering.  Their only burden (if it could ever be considered as such) was to remain in obedience to one simple command of God.  Now into this happy realm came Satan, the enemy of mankind (and of God for that matter), the arch-fiend, followed by his two hideous offspring, Sin and Death.  In minds that had never known anything other than blessedness he sowed deceit and, by the twisting of God’s word, provided the occasion whereby our two ancestors fell from grace through disobedience.  Then the judgment of God came swiftly.  Paradise was lost.  The man and woman were exiled from the presence of God and the full effects of sin and death were laid upon their nature. The earth itself was cursed deeply because of their sin.  No longer would it remain a paradise, but it brought forth hedgerows of thorns and thistles to confound the man.  Thus burdened under the curse of death, our ancestors cried out to the God who had created them, “a boon, Lord, a boon!”  Now that may not have probably been what Adam said, but it’s in keeping with the poetic tradition of a good story, so hear me out.  In mercy, the Creator of the universe looked upon the man and woman whom He had created and loved, and gave a cryptic promise concerning a divinely-appointed deliverer who would one day overthrow their enemies and restore all things.

And now the story jumps far into the future, to the fullness of time, an appropriate place to pick back up.  This promised deliverer was born of a virgin in a Bethlehem stable, grew to maturity in Nazareth, was despised and rejected in Jerusalem, was put to death at the hand of godless men, and was sealed in a tomb.  Wrapped by the chains of death, having borne upon His body the sins of all mankind, having had the just curse and judgment of God exacted upon His person, He descends into Hell, the realm of Satan himself.  Now we get to the good part!  There the divine promise, the seed of hope for mankind, begins to blossom forth.  The head of the serpent is crushed beneath the Deliverer’s feet, the chains of death are broken and cast aside, and Hell is turned inside out as the conquering Deliverer leads captivity captive in triumph through the heavens, the keys of Hell and Death firmly grasped in His hand.  Heaven’s gates swing open full wide once more to mankind, and the proclamation that we are no longer slaves to the baser elements which once held sway over us, but that we are now sons and daughters of God once more is heralded through the kingdom.  A new race from every tribe and nation and tongue is born with their Deliverer-King as its head.

Now that’s a pretty good storyline.  I can’t remember reading one more glorious or exciting.  But what makes this story different from all so many other fairy tales that have the same elements of romance, happiness, heroism, virtue and triumph is this: it is absolutely true.  And this very story is that story of life in which each of us moves and has a part to fulfill.  It would do us some good (eternal good) if we allowed ourselves to be reminded of that truth during this season of Resurrection and see again the panorama of human history, and our own lifetime, from God’s perspective.

And if that’s not enough reason to be uplifted in body and spirit, I’ll let you in on another marvelous thing.  I peeked at the end of the book, and guess what?  All of God’s people live happily FOREVER after–all by the grace of God.  In this season of Resurrection let all glory and power and honor be given to His Name, both now and forever, world without end.  Amen.

The IF and BUT of Resurrection Sunday

“…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…”  I Corinthians 15:14

Webster’s dictionary defines vain as “having no real value, marked by futility or ineffectualness, foolish.”  That which is vain has an appearance that would make it desirable to our eyes, but it has no substance or worth behind its facade; it is a costume-jewelry diamond.  That which is vain has an appearance of strength and security, but has no foundation or underlying reinforcement; it is a house built upon sand.  That which is vain has an appearance of direction and purpose, but it is always bound up in the experiential and has no real basis outside itself; it is a pipe-dream, a grand and glorious promise that can never deliver.  That which is vain has an appearance of power and effect, but it lacks the integrity and harmony to accomplish anything; it is a broken tooth, or a limb out of joint.  And the Apostle Paul states emphatically that our religion, our doctrine, our faith, our liturgy, and our heritage is vanity if Jesus Christ be not raised.  Consider what this means.

If Christ be not raised, mankind remains dead in their sins, destined to be forever separated from their Creator.  If Christ be not raised, then our only destiny is death, and after death a certain awful judgment.  If Christ be not raised, then the soul of mankind remains chained in captivity forever, and the gates of heaven shall never be opened to them.  If Christ be not raised, then all the souls of the righteous dead have no hope of the promise of God being fulfilled for them.  If Christ be not raised, then we are not just lost, but deceived, and our religion and life is void of purpose.  It is a charade.  If Christ be not raised, then we are squandering what little life we have upon this earth pursuing the wind.  If Christ be not raised, then this world and all contained within it are shrouded even now in darkness, and will always bear the curse of sin as its lot.  If Christ be not raised, then all creation is subjected to Satan’s dominion and his unholy lordship mocks the Name of God.

That is, if Christ be not raised.  But Resurrection Sunday shouts hallelujah, He is raised; and because He is, our sins are forgiven, we have fellowship as sons and daughters of God, we have eternal life, heaven’s gates are opened wide to us, we are joined in the glorious communion of saints before God’s throne, our religion is alive and able to touch mankind’s heart, our lives have purpose which goes beyond this age, light has come in the world and people have seen it, and the serpent’s head has been crushed and his mocking accusations silenced forever.

For a time our world had been shrouded in darkness, and for a season Satan had his dominion. But the winds have changed, the fullness of time has come, and this season now belongs to us.  It is a season of light and life, a season of joy and grace, a season of healing and deliverance, a season of power and the breaking in of the kingdom of God.

So lift your eyes to the heavens and hear the words of the angel proclaim, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Hear those worlds of life and know that all the promises of God have become “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus Christ.  And then go forth in joy, knowing that the season of darkness has passed away with the rising Son, and that the salvation of our God has today been made manifest in our hearts!  Christ is risen, truly He is risen!  We are a Resurrection people and Hallelujah is our song.

Ember Days

“…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God…”  Ephesians 6:12-13

I think that one of the greatest failures of true religion is the lack of discernment regarding that which is evil.  Christians confine their spiritual vision to the earth, and too often miss the spiritual struggle that is even now working itself out in the heavenly places around us.  We tend to discount the new pagans, attributing far too little power to their rites and beliefs.  But Paul makes it clear in our opening scripture that there is a vast host of dark spiritual forces arrayed against the people of God, and it is to the heavens, as well as on the earth, that we must press the battle under the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds…”  II Corinthians 10:3-5.

Throughout the ages the Church has sought to place such mighty weapons in the hands of her saints that they might strive mightily against the gates of hell and prevail.  One such weapon was the seasons of fasting  known to the Church as the Ember days.

The Origins of the Ember Days

One tradition holds that the name “ember” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means the completing of a circuit, the coming round of a recurring time or season.  In modern terms we might liken it to the keeping of an anniversary date in which something of significance is remembered and celebrated each year.  The scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to us of the nature of God, that His word and order is proclaimed throughout the heavens, that the recurring passage of time reveals knowledge of His ways to us (read Psalm 19:1-6 for instance).  It’s unfortunate that the Christian Church has forgotten such lessons in which the heavenly plan and will of God are made manifest in time and place.  It is a lesson that the pagans have not forgotten, for in their “earth religion” they seek to tap into the cycle of creation which is by heritage the rightful property of the Christian Church.

Consider, for example, the great significance attached by the new age pagans to the keeping of the Vernal Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 23) and the Winter Solstice (December 22).   Equinox comes from the Latin meaning days on which daylight and night are equal, and Solstice comes from a word meaning when the “sun stands” at its greatest extreme.  The summer solstice is the longest daylight period, the winter solstice the shortest daylight period.   Such celebrations were historically tied to the three great harvests of wheat, grapes and olives by the ancient Romans.  But the Church was quick to note that these times were also periods in which demonic evil and wickedness seemed to flourish and peak in a cyclical regularity.  This is not surprising; for if, in the times of abundance,  man’s heart does not rise to his Creator in thanksgiving, it falls to prideful sins of ingratitude and idolatry.  Said another way, where grace is not at work in restoration, sin is at work in degradation.  Because heathen practices and rituals were so active in these times, the Church instituted its own seasons which were intended to stir up the saints to spiritual activity.   Such spiritual legislation is not forbidden by the scriptures and is part of the spiritual liberty which we possess as heirs with Christ.

Thus were born the so-called Ember days of Christianity.  Another tradition holds the origin of their name to have been derived from a corruption of the Latin “Quatuor Tempora”, the quarter tense or the four times.  Regardless of the origin of their names, the Ember Days were established from the start as days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and increased almsgiving that by the weapons of righteousness the deeds of darkness might be exposed and overcome.   The Church also saw the added benefit in the observance of cyclic fasting in all the seasons of the year.  It continued to remind the saints of their need for repeated purification under the hand of God.  Then too it reminded each man that earthly life was not the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and the balancing of the days of feasting and celebration against the days of fasting and penitence brought a Godly harmony to daily life.  As Paul states in Philippians 4:11-13:

“…in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

The lessons which the ember days sought to teach were that men ought to thank God for the gifts of nature in each of its seasons; that men were to make right and moderate use of the abundance of God’s bounty; and that from this use they were to remember and assist those in true need of Christian charity.

Seasonal Disciplines Like Fasting Are Ancient

The practice of seasonal Church fasting is ancient.  The Roman Archbishop Callistus in A.D. 222 wrote in his first epistle:

“Fasting, which you have learned to hold three times in the year among us, we decree now to take place as more suitable in four seasons; so that even as the year revolves through four seasons, we too may keep a solemn fast quarterly in the four seasons of the year.  And as we are replenished with corn, and wine and oil for the nourishment of our bodies, so let us be replenished with fasting for the nourishment of our souls…”

Leo the Great in his Sermon 19 delivered around A.D. 450 declared:

“This profitable observance [i.e. self restraint and abstinence] is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times.  Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction.  For when the prophet says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge..’ what is there then by which the Truth does not speak to us?”

He continues later on to infer an apostolic origin for this practice.

“Let us therefore fast on Wednesday, and Friday, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed apostle Peter….[performing] our supplications and fastings and alms which the Lord Jesus Christ presents…”

The observance of Ember Days is therefore fixed and at the same time variable.  They are fixed in the sense of occurring always on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and variable since they occur in the week after Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), September 14 (historically the exaltation of the cross), and December 13 (the remembrance day of St. Lucia).  Thus the Latin verse was phrased to help the faithful remember their timing “Post crux, post lux, post ignes, post cineres”, or in a rough translation, “after the cross, after the light, after the fire, after the ashes.”

The seasons of God’s creation are ours by inheritance.  Let us reclaim them from the pagans so that their line may go out through all the earth for the glory of God; and let us not despise the Godly disciplines whereby the saints in ages past have wrestled to keep themselves undefiled in the world and persevering in the promises of God’s covenant.

True Religion

True religion is a funny sort of thing in this world of ours.  It starts as a genuine ache deep down inside the soul, a gnawing sort of restlessness that doesn’t give a person a moment’s rest.  Some might say that it’s the sense of primeval guilt of sin that haunts a soul at these times; others declare it to be the very first workings of God’s mercy and grace calling to the human heart.  But, whether we ascribe the ache to the emptiness of sin or to the whispered promises of grace, we must see that it is the Spirit of God at work, calling ever so persistently, drawing ever so surely.  As St. Augustine wrote in the first chapter of his Confessions:

Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise You.  He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that You thwart the proud.  But still, since he is a part of Your creation, he is drawn to praise You.  The thought of You stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises You, because You made us for Yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

Such is the beginning of true religion.  It is of divine origin, coming down from the heavens to reside in a vessel that distinctly bears the imprint and likeness of its Maker.  It is true balm to the soul, and instantly the ache subsides as the power of the Gospel soaks deep within.  Why is it that so many people never allow the full healing to take hold of their souls?  I only ask that because I look around at the Church at large and I see many things that make up its religion, and at times it somehow seems too complex, too rigid and unyielding, too man-made and contrived, not anything like what I know true religion to consist of.

True religion and true love are alike.  Everyone loves to some extent; you can’t help loving if you’re at all human.  But true love, that’s a different story.  It’s hard to explain just exactly what it is, but you know it when it enters your heart.  And once it grips that place within you that is the seat where a person loves and can be loved, you are never the same.  The entire world takes on a new perspective; the mere presence of your beloved brings light and joy to your circumstance.  No strain, no complexity, no facades or barriers, such is true love; such also must be true religion.

When I am confronted with my religion, and find myself needing to define or defend it, words often fail.  Oh, I could conjure up some theological tome, or recite some catechetical answer that fits the question at hand, but that seems so shallow and trite somehow.  Not that it isn’t true.  But truth is often not enough to restore the glow of life to a sin-deadened heart.  Somehow truth cannot be the whole of true religion any more than fond affection or momentary exhilaration can be the whole of true love.  There is so much more to our religion, yet I find it hard to communicate the innermost thoughts that flood my heart as I contemplate the love of God.  I feel like the blind man on whose eyes Jesus put spittle and clay, and when I wash in the pool, my eyes are opened, and I see as I have never seen before.  And immediately people ask me how it has been done.  Some say that my new vision is impossible, others cannot accept it and instead explain it away in terms of some psychological phenomena.

And what can I say to communicate the fullness which courses through my souls on that day?  My words are all too inadequate; they are a poor testimony indeed to the great work which God has brought to pass.  And when words fail, when all the powers of the human soul fall short of divine reality, it is at times such as this that I must content myself with the answer of the man born blind, “Whether thus and such is so, I do not know.  One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  And in that declaration of faith, although in some minds it might pale in comparison to the great creeds or doctrines of our religion, I find that somehow I touch my true religion once more, and my soul seeks out the Man Who anointed my eyes, and I fall at His feet and worship Him.  And everything else seems insignificant in that moment, for my soul has found its rest at last.

The Depths of Christian Liberty

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.”  Exodus 6:6-7

In the Jewish Passover Haggadah, four cups of wine are shared in the course of the meal to recall the four great works of redemption that the Lord wrought on behalf of His people as expressed in Exodus 6:6-7.  The Jewish service is structured so that each generation reminds the next of the great salvation which is their heritage, lest it be forgotten and lost somehow.  Indeed we might venture to say that this salvation is what truly makes them the people of God.  It is not necessarily their ancestry, or their race, but rather the express choice of God and the outpouring of His liberty upon them in full measure that makes them His.  There is something instructive in these verses for us, the Church, as well.  They speak clearly to us of the depths of God’s liberty and our Christian freedom.

I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…Who of us has not been burdened by the weight of a sin-bruised conscience, or been smeared with the defilement of a guilt whose filth we could in no wise wash away, or felt the intense shame of wrongdoing?  Sin is a terrible burden.  The shoulders of a man or woman were never meant to bear such weight, and they are stooped over and cruelly bent by its magnitude.  And when it seems we can bear no more, the words of Jesus ring out in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you shall find rest for your souls.”  In His forgiveness, the burdens are lifted from our shoulders and we straighten up with our created dignity again.

I will rescue you from their bondage…Forgiveness is a balm to the sin-weary soul, but it is not a curative that goes deep enough to the very root of the cancer that eats at our nature from within.  A man forgiven a debt may breathe free for one moment, but if he has no means of support, it is not long before he finds himself in debt again.  Furthermore, habits of vice are hard to quickly lay aside.  It is as if we entered a sodden pigpen, washed clean the sow within it, and left with the command for her to remain clean.  Neither the nature of the sow nor the environment she is in is conducive to fulfilling that command.  So it is with the corrupted human nature set in a perverse world.  It is to such a state as that that Jesus declares “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…and to set at liberty those that are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  To his forgiveness is added deliverance, and the enemies of our soul are put to rout.

And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…The law of sin and death is a hard taskmaster.  The man who stands accused by its statues must forfeit his life, for justice demands that the full penalty be paid.  Mercy would sweep away all indebtedness, but cannot do so without doing harm to the divine dictates of justice.  And our accuser ever rails against us, not with twisted lies about our life, but with the truth of our faithlessness recounted as if read from an open book.  In the face of such iniquity, who can stand?  “I see another law…bringing me into captivity to the law of sin…O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:23-24)  Where shall we look for our deliverance?  The answer resounds from the heavens, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 7:25 to 8:1).  To the washing of forgiveness and the wonder of deliverance is added redemption entered into by the outstretched arm of God shaking the very powers of the air, and with great and final judgment upon sin and death.  But it is not judgment without cost, for its justice claimed the innocent blood of the Lamb of God Himself.  The bloodguiltiness of our sin, both original and actual, was satisfied in His blood, and it is paid for by His death.  And in that redemption we are, as it were, legally free of any claim which the law could ever lay to our account.

I will take you as My people, and I will be your God…Forgiveness, deliverance, redemption; all that we need to live in relative freedom upon this earth is graciously given to us.  But wait!  Behold the further depth of God’s love.  “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).  It is not enough that we are no longer slaves, but now we are made sons and daughters.  Such is the unsearchable depth of God’s freedom.  As forgiveness, deliverance, and redemption forms the body of His liberty, so adoption informs its heart and very soul.  By it we are made sons and daughters of God, heirs to the kingdom, and fellow heirs with Jesus.  Freedom in this life is given in full measure and in the life to come, eternal life.

Four cups of wine are laid before us by the hand of God and we are invited to drink our fill of forgiveness, deliverance, redemption, and adoption.  Just when we thought we knew all that there was about the love and liberty of God, we are reminded that they have dimensions that we have not yet experienced.  “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness, O God.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  May we ever be reminded of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of God, and, in that, glimpse the true extent of our Christian liberty in Him.

Thomas and the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' side, painting

” Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”  Mark 9:23-24

Faith is an important part of the Christian life, the doorway as it were by which we enter the Kingdom.  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).  But, too often, we turn it into a kind of coin of the realm, something we barter in exchange for mercies received from the King.  We see this attitude most often when prayers go unanswered.  “If you had enough faith, God would hear”, is the familiar rebuke that is leveled against us in these times.  To be sure, there have been men and women of great faith.  Their names make up the litany of faith contained in Hebrews 11….Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and more.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Most of us will be saved by our faith, but it’s not likely we will be remembered for our great faith.  But even a little faith is sufficient for Jesus Christ to work in someone’s life.  The man or woman who knows the limitations of their faith, that point where doubt, confusion, ignorance, or even unbelief creeps in to steal away the blessed assurance of God’s favor, is a person who can be transparent before God.  “I can go this far, but no further Lord”, they may say; or as stated in our opening scripture “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Such a man was Thomas the Apostle who is best remembered not for his great faith but rather as Thomas, the doubter.

Thomas’ name in Syriac means “Twin”, and that is why he is referred to in John 11:16 by the Greek equivalent, Didymus.  He appears in each of the four lists of Apostles found in the synoptic evangelists, but it is in John’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of his personality.  In John 11:1-16 we have the story of Jesus returning to Bethany to heal Lazarus, his friend.  His disciples were fearful, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You and are You going there again?”  Whether in the beginnings of true faith, or only in resignation Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  Thomas was always the optimist!  In John 14:1-6 as the Lord teaches concerning His imminent death Thomas questions Him saying “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”  To this Jesus replies directly to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also…”  This mild rebuke would have turned Thomas’ uncertainly back to the one thing He was most certain of, Jesus.  But the incident by which he is best remembered is found in John 20:24-29.  Jesus has appeared in His resurrected glory to the other disciples, but “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  When confronted by their account he responds characteristically “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

We might think this the height of unbelief, but I see it more as an honest confession of the limits of Thomas’ faith.  He had been with the Lord during that last week as had the others.  He saw Him betrayed, condemned, put to death, and at last buried.  Lest we be too hard on Thomas remember that Luke 24:11 records the rest of the disciples’ reaction to the words of the women who had seen Jesus risen and alive,  “their words seemed to them [the disciples] like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”  But at just that point where Thomas’ faith was not yet enough to sustain him, Jesus came specifically to him.  “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And as he touched the wounds of his Lord, Thomas’s faith was made whole so that he freely confessed to Him, “My Lord and my God.

This much but little more the Scripture reveals to us of Thomas.  When the general Jewish persecution came upon the early church the apostles and disciples were scattered over the whole world.  In the apocryphal work called “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas” it says “we portioned out [by lot] the regions of the world in order that each one of us might go into the region that fell to him, and to the nations to which the Lord sent him.”   There is some truth in this account, for Eusebius, in his “History of the Church” Book 3 Section 1, tells us that “Thomas was chosen for Parthia.”  This is part of what we know today as Iran.  Tradition further tells us that he was also active in Carmania (southern Iran), Hyrcania (northern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Pakistan, eventually extending his mission field to the southwestern coast of India.  At this location it is recorded that he established seven churches on the Malabar Coast.  The tradition seems to be confirmed since there have been a group of believers at that location dating back into the middle ages who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas” and who claim to trace their faith back to the first preaching of Thomas in Malabar.  It was at Calamine that Thomas’ faith was tried and found sufficient, as he suffered martyrdom by the spear.

Back to the question of faith.  How much is sufficient?  The Lord’s own teachings seem to indicate that if we could but have faith as the grain of a mustard seed, divine power might be ours to move even mountains into the sea.  But the Lord brings it into perspective in Luke 10:19-20 “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy….. nevertheless do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Thomas may never have overcome the limitations of his faith while on the earth, but in his heart he already knew “the way, the truth, and the life” and that was sufficient for the trials and work of each day.    His life may not have been a testimony to great faith, but it is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to faithfully remain “the author and finisher” of his faith.  When the spears of martyrdom came upon him Thomas’ testimony echoed the words of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12  “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”  May our faith be sufficient for the day at hand, and may we never be afraid to confront our lack of faith.  It is only then, as we place our fingers in the nail-scarred hands of our Savior and look once more into his eyes that all of our doubt, confusion, and fear is swallowed up in the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.

John Wesley’s Sermon 50 – On the Use of Money

keys of sub-cash register

I recently had the opportunity to read John Wesley’s Sermon 50 on the use of money in which he expounded on Luke 16:9 “Make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness….”  From what I have read of John Wesley he lived frugally and to a very exacting standard when it came to his understanding of stewardship and the use of money.  His only mistake in all of this was placing his calling and standard upon other believers and calling them to a stricter account than I believe that God or His word puts upon us.  With that one caution stated, the sermon contains three useful guiding principles on the use of money that I believe can be instructive for church congregations today as they struggle with the very present practicalities of budgets and congregational giving.

The first principle regarding the use of money is “Gain all you can.”  John Wesley counsels us to meet the world on its own ground and, within limits, to gain all that we have the power to gain in terms of wealth.  He cautions against gaining wealth that costs “too dearly”; for instance, wealth gained at the expense of our life or health, wealth gained at the exhaustion of our minds or souls, or wealth gained at the expense or damage of our neighbor.  The latter includes gaining wealth by preying on the addictions of others (such as selling alcohol) and business practices such as undercutting our neighbor’s prices to drive him out of competition or stealing his customers or workforce.  But where we may do so with the love of God and the love of neighbor foremost in our minds, he counsels us to use the time wisely, investing our time and talents to gain all that we can.  To state it scripturally, “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your power” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The second principle that pertains to a Christian’s wise use of money is “Save all you can.”  Having exerted your wisdom and strength to gain all that you can, John Wesley counsels us to not throw away or waste any of the gain we have diligently made but to live simply and carefully.  This is what I would call “living below your means,” and what John Wesley refers to as not simply gratifying the desire of our eyes or flesh, or trying to buy the admiration of the world.  This includes not only exercising temperance over our own lifestyles but being careful not to enable our children in the frivolous use of money.  John Wesley states that it is better to withhold a rightful inheritance to our children if we know that the money will only ensnare them and endanger their souls by underwriting their excessive lifestyle by the giving of it.

“Gain all that you can” and “Save all that you can.”  Having stated the two foundational principles, John Wesley adds the third principle that explains and gives purpose to the first two.  In fact, we could say that if you only did the first two principles you would have laid a strong foundation but built nothing lasting upon it.  The third principle is this, “Give all that you can.”  Here also John Wesley has some practical priorities to guide us in this principle.  First, provide those things that are required for your own life such as food, clothing, shelter; avoid excess, and while practicing moderation provide what is necessary for health, well-being, and strength.  Second, provide those same benefits to your spouse, your children, and others who are part of your household whether family or employees.  Third, if there remains a surplus, John Wesley counsels using it to “do good to those that are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10b).  This could find expression in providing for the needy of our congregations, assisting others in the pursuit of their own occupations and callings, or providing opportunities for others to advance and grow.  And finally, if there is still more, John Wesley urges us to complete the scripture in Galatians 6:10a and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men…”

Upon these three principals, John Wesley faithfully lived out his life and ministry and passed them onto us in his sermon as a true pastor concerned with the health and state of our souls and all of the temptations and pulls of the world systems and styles.  If we believe the other scriptural truths that all that we possess ultimately comes from God, that He alone is able to give the power to produce wealth, and that some day we must give account for the use we have made of what He has given to us, then John Wesley’s simple principals give us the vision and the framework to render back to God those things that are ultimately God’s while fully accommodating the necessity of providing for the welfare of ourselves, our household, our congregations, and our communities.  The full sermon and others can be found at the website Wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition