Saturday, June 21, 2008

Alive to God

Homily for Proper 12, Year A
Sunday, June 22nd, 2008
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Reverend Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 6:1b-11

In my homily, last week, I noted that it is often in the crisis moments of our lives that we meet God. And while it is surely true that for many of us our relationship with God has been a loving encounter that has stretched gently through the many years of our lives, it is also true that, like any long-term relationship, its growth is often punctuated by moments of crisis. To some extent, all crises by which we are confronted are rooted in fear. Most fear is really the fear of loss – losing our loved ones, losing a way of life, losing a relationship, losing ourselves. And at the heart of our fear of loss, we encounter our deepest fear: The fear of death. All loss is, in some way or another, a death in our lives. Death is something that, as human beings, we all inevitably share in. Thus, every little death in our lives touches, in some way, that deeper death to be faced by us all, sooner or later. This is why the losses faced by others around us may be so poignant to each of us; the fear felt by another might be so easily understood and shared, and the death even of a stranger touches us profoundly.

This fear of loss and fear of death reaches across the centuries and as such, we can certainly understand what the people of Rome, to whom St. Paul wrote, felt about death. They were just as afraid of death as you and me. They had heard of the wonderful news of new life in Christ Jesus, but some had clearly not understood what this meant. Someone posed the following question: If God’s grace is offered to us because we are sinners, should we not continue to sin in order that grace may abound? One wonders if this was even a serious question at all, or one simply posed to demonstrate the absurdity of the concept of God’s free grace in Christ. Be that as it may, I wonder if what they really feared was reckoning with their own angst about their own human finality. The message of God’s grace is a message that offers hope not only for this life, but also for the next. But when we begin to consider the ramifications of God in our lives, we are necessarily led to consider the impact of risk and fear and loss. And ultimately, we must consider the reality of our own death. I suggest that the critique of the gospel to which St. Paul is responding is a critique that seeks to make light not only of the gospel, but to also make light of the human angst we all share. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

When confronted with life and death we have two choices. The first is seek to cling to life, by ignoring the reality of death. It is not a clinging to life because life is something wonderful, but a clinging to life because we are afraid of what it means to lose our life. It is to choose a life filled with extraneous distractions; things that distract us from the reality of death; that instill in us the false hope death will somehow miss us and pass us by because we are hidden by the clutter of all the wonderful distractions that fill our lives. However, we have another way; we can make another choice. We can choose to face the reality of our own death and in spite of it, in the shadow of it, and because of it, choose life. At funerals, we often focus on the words of the psalmist, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but we must never forget the companion verse: “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Death remains a reality for each of us, but as Christian people, we choose to believe that it means something very different than the passing away and destruction of all that is good in life.

St. Paul reminds the Romans that all who are baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. But I would suggest that baptism is not as much about our participation in Christ’s death, but God’s participation in our death. For in Christ God takes our human frailty, our human finality, and makes it his own; and in doing so conquers and destroys it. Death no more has dominion over him – the death he died, he died to sin once for all. Likewise, reckon ye also yourselves dead to sin and alive to God, in Christ Jesus. Death no longer has dominion over us.

In Baptism we have changed masters, we are no longer enslaved either to sin or to death. By being released from death as our master, we are also released from sin -- for is it not the fear of death that leads us into such selfish ways in which we cling to life not because it is beautiful but because we are selfishly afraid to imagine a world in which we do not exist? But in staring death in the face, Christ uses death to destroy death and vanquish its claim to victory. In this victory we walk in newness of life.

One of St. Paul’s favourite ways of describing a Christian is by using the phrase “in Christ.” You are “in Christ.” That is, we participate in his triumph over death, we walk in newness of life.

What does newness of life mean to us? In the academic discussion of Paul’s letters there is a debate that rages (is this not always the case when studying Paul?). The question is this: Is “newness of life” about a future hope or present reality. In academic terms we speak of the future or realized eschatology, i.e., is Paul’s theology of new life about a reality that God will one day bring about, or a new reality in which we are now participating. There are many passages in Paul that can be corralled to support either claim, but I would suggest that neither claim needs to be exclusive, and in fact are not polarities to be contrasted but should be considered complementary claims. On one level, Paul speaks about our death in the past tense and our new life in the future tense: “If we have died with him, we shall live with him.” This places us somewhere “between the times.” It suggests that our hope for new life is a future hope. And indeed it is. This is what allows us to believe that although these mortal bodies turn to dust, death is not the final story for any of us, but the door to new life. Although death has been defeated, we know that it only exists as the ending of this part of our journey and as the doorway to a yet more glorious journey. We have a future hope, and as Paul said in chapter 5 of Romans, hope does not disappoint.

However, Paul also says that through our death to sin that we are alive to God in Christ. Thus, as we have “put on Christ” in our baptism, we have also put on new life in the present age. In addition to the claim of future life, Paul makes the claim for new life in the here and now. In fact, he makes the claim that in our baptism we have already died. We have died to hopelessness, we have died to captivity, we have died to sin, we have died to separation from God, and now, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Although we continue to face the reality of the death of this mortal body, the words of Job ring true to us: “In my flesh I shall see God.” For while it is true that God calls us home after our earthly pilgrimage is done, we are not left comfortless in these latter days. God walks with us in Christ through the power of the Spirit throughout this earthly pilgrimage.

No matter the crisis that confronts us, no matter the fear that threatens to overtake us, no matter that our bodies shall one day give out, death is not our final story, nor is it or can it ever be our master. To be sure, we will continue to have our moments of doubt and fear. My own moments of angst often come in the darkness of the night, when the darkness threatens to overcome the light. I sometimes wonder if my passing out of this world will indeed be followed by my passage into another, or resurrection on some final day. Yet, sleeps encroaches and I find that I must finally submit to it. The next thing I know, the dawn has arrived and my fear has subsided. In the light of day I find hope not only for the future but also in the present moment. In the light of the day, I find abundant life, not only as something that will blossom when the harvest comes to fruition but also in the unfolding and flowering of my life in the present. It is in these moments in the light that I find the strength to face the darkness that will inevitably come again, and the courage to believe that the darkness always gives way to light. I come to recognize what St. Paul means when he says that we are “alive to God.” From our experience of being alive to God we begin to learn to believe that even when it seems like death has won the day, we can continue to believe that, even in the face of death, the promise of new life endures and is our reality.

Whether it be the experience of new life in the midst of the changes and chances of this fleeting world, or whether it be our hope for life beyond the grave, as Christian people we are convinced of one thing, that death no longer has dominion over us. In both the gentle unfolding of our lives, and also when faced with a litany of faith-challenging crises, we take comfort in the fact that we have chosen life, and indeed that life itself, in the person of Christ Jesus, has chosen us. Let us go forward then, eagerly to meet him in the midst of the worst the world can throw at us, because in those moments of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, when fear threatens to overcome us, we shall fear no evil; in the moments when we seem most alone we shall remember that, “thou art with me”; and when we come face to face with the reality of death in our lives, we shall remember that death has been swallowed up in victory and we shall believe that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, a life that is lived not only in the present, but eternally, in the heart of a loving God.

Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can We Boast Without Shame?

Homily for Proper 11, Year A
Sunday, June 15th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:1-8

St. Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Well, I do not know about you, but in my world, boasting is not something to be encouraged – and certainly not to be encouraged as a Christian virtue! I have always understood boasting as something selfish and conceited. At a slightly deeper level, if I boast about what I have, the boast is, in effect, a put-down of another: I have something you do not have, and therefore I am better than you and you should be ashamed or feel unworthy. I suppose it does not help that we are Canadians. Do we not pride ourselves in being unlike our boastful neighbours? Do we not overcompensate and over-apologize for any little offense that we might perpetrate; or even apologize for things that we have not done, lest it seem that we are to pig-headed? Furthermore, as Christian people we are to be filled with loving charity, giving of ourselves, doing without, being like Jesus, suffering for the sake of others. The last thing that we should do either as Canadians or as Christians is boast.

And yet, here, in this most crucial letter of the Pauline corpus, Paul affirms boasting, of a sort, as a Christian virtue. What are we to make of this? To me, this is one of those uncomfortable passages in Paul’s letters that is perhaps most easily passed over and left for another day. I suggest, though, that the difficulty of a passage must not dissuade us from considering how it might speak to us in the deepening of our Christian walk. I suppose, when it comes right down to it, I find this passage difficult because I know that my own ego is perhaps, slightly oversized. I know that I have a tendency to boast when, perhaps, I should instead be walking in humilty. I suspect that I am not alone in this although I cannot speak for others. So, when Paul speaks of boasting as a Christian virtue many of us feel a bit squeamish, because our own sin, and propensity to sin, is ever before us.

What is it, though, that Paul instructs us to boast about? It is this: “Our hope of sharing the glory of God.” This hope is rooted in our own justification by faith, our own peace with God through that justification, and indeed our access to God’s grace.

Before I continue, I would like to make a short digression and speak about justification by faith. This is a term that has been bandied about by theologians for hundreds of years. There is still much disagreement about what is meant by the term. Justification is what we call a legal-forensic term, with its etymological roots in the Latin translation of the Greek word for righteousness. A literal, and more correct (if grammatically dubious) translation of “justified”, might best be understood by transforming the noun “righteous” into a verbal passive form, “to be righteoused.” The controversy around this phrase concerns how we understand what to be “righteoused” or “justified” means. One understanding involves a permanent change in status of the person justified, a change of nature once and for all. In this understanding, a person takes on a permanent new identity through the sacrifice of Christ. Another understanding involves a wiping clean of the past, a clean slate, a tabla rasa, but with the possibility of going off track again. The past has been wiped clean, but the future is remains open. Furthermore, the degree to which a person continues to rely solely on grace or participate through post-justification "works" in the post-justification state continues to be a matter of theological disagreement and discussion. We cannot resolve these debates here, I only raise then to demonstrate that while Christians may agree on a doctrine of justification by faith, they may indeed have quite different understandings of what it means. Similarly, we might ask the origin of the faith through which we are justified. For some it is a faith we stir up ourselves when we realize we are unable to do right without God; it is a decision we make in the face of our realization that we have no power in and of ourselves to be righteous. We realize that only God makes us righteous and that stirring of faith leads imputes righteousness. Others will suggest that while that realization may be the catalyst to faith, faith comes not from ourselves but as a gift from God, which we appropriate both when we are confronted by crisis and also in the gentle unfolding revelation of God in the midst of our lives. I must confess that I fall into this latter group. All of this is to say that I take faith to be a gift from God. As we begin to receive that gift we begin to realize that God has opened to us the way of new life.

So what does this digression on justification have to do with boasting? Namely this: That the hope in which St. Paul boasts is a hope rooted in a faith imparted by God in Christ, through God’s grace, for a peace offered by the same loving God in Christ. We have access to this God in and through the self-offering of Christ in the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Put simply, we have cause to boast because we have received a most wonderful gift, reconciliation with a loving God and with each other. The gift is freely given and loving received. It is not of our own making but is divine and precious.

However, boasting still has its dark side, and St. Paul knows this better than anyone. We boast not in and of ourselves, or for ourselves but in, of, and for Christ. And we must always remember that our Lord and Christ is the one whose throne is a cross and who is a king who wore a crown of thorns. To boast in Christ we must always remember that the way of Christ is indeed a way of self-offering and self-denial. Boasting is not for self-glorification or the deprecation of others, but a confession of God’s gracious self-offering that transforms all creation. Boasting in Christ means claiming both the Cross and the Resurrection as our cause for boasting.

That wonderful Christian hymn, Lift High the Cross has this most poignant line: “Great is the cost of walking on this road, to follow and suffer with the Son of God.” I do not for a moment believe that suffering is a condition of our Christian faith nor is suffering sent by God to test us. Yet, I think suffering is a condition of our humanity. Each of us will, without fail, suffer in some way along our earthly pilgrimage. For some it will be physical suffering of the worst kind. For other there will be psychological suffering, emotional suffering, or spiritual suffering. One thing I find in common amongst those I meet who suffer is a propensity to utter such a phrase as this: “At least I’m glad don’t have it as bad as that other person over there…” While this sentiment can be a helpful coping mechanism, it is ultimately a symptom of a denial of our human condition, and illustrates what Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People) calls the “suffering Olympics.” Yes, there will always be someone who has it worse than you, but what does that really matter. Your pain is real, your hurt is authentic, your struggle feels impossible to manage. What good is it to compare and be self-effacing about it. In a way, this propensity to compare our suffering with that of another is kind of boasting in which we lie to ourselves – as we attempt to minimize the reality of our suffering we implicitly claim to be better and more able to cope with our suffering that what we actually are. This is not the sort of boasting encourage by the Apostle.

I have said before that I take myself to be a Christian Existentialist. I believe very passionately that our life of faith comes about, develops and matures as the result of meeting God in the midst of human crisis. If we deny our suffering, if we reject it, if we allow the cup to pass, then we also risk missing the encounter with a Lord who meets us in our suffering. We risk meeting a Lord who makes our suffering one with his suffering and offers his Resurrection as our resurrection. Again, we do not believe that suffering is a visitation from God, but in our suffering we may certainly be visited by the one knows our pain and shares our wounds. Thus, St. Paul says that suffering produces endurance, but it is not our endurance, but God’s endurance when we have not the strength to endure. Endurance produces character; and again, it is not our character but the indelible character of Christ imprinted on us. Character produces hope -- hope not only for our deliverance from affliction, strife and need, but hope for the whole human family; for all our brothers and sisters who despondency threatens to overcome. And hope does not disappoint us. God is faithful to the last.

Thus, to boast in our justification, in the grace we have received, in our access to God, is not to boast in our own righteousness, our own access to God, our own peace, but to proclaim the righteousness of God to a hurting world, to those who suffer indignity and unjust oppression. To boast in our access to God is not boast in our relationship with God but to proclaim to the lonely and brokenhearted that God calls them, journeys with them, loves them beyond measure and will never leave them. To boast in the peace of God is not claim that we are a people without conflict or division, but to proclaim to a world torn apart by conflict, strife and division, that God reconciles us to each other when all hope for peace seems lost. To boast in hope is not to assert that we have a salvation from God that others do not, but to proclaim to any who walk without hope, to any who have lost their faith either in God or their fellow human beings, that in Christ all things are being made new with each new rising of the sun.

To boast in Christ is not an act of self-aggrandizement, nor is it a deprecation of the faith of others. It is the simple claim that we have met a Lord who loves us even in our darkest hour, who sharing in our suffering leads us forth to a yet more glorious day. It is the proclamation that again and again, he comes to us, and takes our hand, from one age to the next, loving us, helping us, leading us, transforming us, when we cannot help ourselves. It is the proclamation that this word of hope is hope for the whole world. And finally, it is a word of hope in whiche we can boast . It is a word of hope tht we can share with the world, without shame and without reservation.

Text c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.