Sunday, February 22, 2015

From Unworthiness to Holy Service: A homily for Lent 1, 2015

Homily for Lent 1, Year B, 2015
Sunday, February 22nd, 2015
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

“Christ suffered for sins once for all.” – 1 Peter 3:18

I think one of the great struggles people have with God is they wonder how an all-powerful God who created the entire cosmos could love and care about them?  When we contemplate the expanse of time and space on a cosmic scale, my life is but a blip.  Even when we move from the cosmic perspective to a human perspective, our lives can seem still quite insignificant. I do a lot of genealogy, and it is amazing how completely a person can be forgotten in just a hundred years, or even less. It is humbling for me to look at that gallery of clergy hanging at the back of this church and think about how little we know about some of those people and that in sixty or so years, people with look at my picture and say “who was he?” and likely no one will remember.  If I will be forgotten in less than a century, who am I that the God who created the cosmos should love me and care about me?
            And yet, God does love me and God does care about me. God does love you and God does care about you.  Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we hear in the First Epistle of Peter about that love and care God has for us, and God brings purpose and meaning into our lives. Some scholars believe this letter was written to a group of early Christians who found themselves in exile for their faith.  Some may have been persecuted or even killed for their belief in Christ Jesus.  It would have been very easy for them to have become discouraged. Yet, Peter wrote to them to give the courage, to strengthen their faith, and remind them of the purpose God had given them, when they asked does God really love me, does he really care about me? 
            To all of this Peter responded with an encouraging reminder about the foundation of their faith, Jesus Christ and his saving work.  He told them to remember that Christ also suffered, and that it was the suffering of Christ that brought them to God, unworthy as they were.  What a remarkable proclamation this is; God came to us in Christ Jesus, although we were unworthy, to bring us closer us to God. 
As stated at the outset, many people believe that they are unworthy of God’s love and care because they have made mistakes, sinned, or hurt others. Some just have a general sense of unworthiness before God.  Indeed, one of my first deeply religious experiences was when I was on a school trip in grade eight to Quebec City, and we visited that great church of St. Anne de Beaupre. As you walk into that church you see crutches hanging from the arch of the nave, no longer needed by people who received healing at the church.  In that church is a relic, allegedly the arm (encased in gold) of St. Anne, the grandmother of our Lord.  As a child I looked at that relic and was overcome by the greatness of God, the magnitude of God, and as I stood in the presence of a holy relic of a great saint, I felt myself somehow in the presence of God, and found myself unworthy.  Many people describe religious experiences in which they come to a sense of awe and wonder of the almighty nature of God and sense their own unworthiness in the presence of the Almighty.  But God does not leave us there.  I am reminded of the story of Isaiah found in chapter six of that book. Isaiah has a vision of the throne room of God and sees the angels around the throne crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, and Isaiah is overcome by his own unworthiness and his own sinfulness. He cries out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Who among us would not respond as Isiah did?  But God did not leave him there. An angel touched his lips with a live coal from the altar of God and proclaimed that with the touch of the coal to his lips, all his sin had departed him and his guilt had been blotted out. Isaiah then felt free of what burdened him, free of the weight of unworthiness, so freed in fact, that he when he heard the Lord ask “Whom shall I send?” he called out bravely, “Hear I am: send me!”
            It seems to me that Peter was reminding this very same thing to the exiles to whom he wrote. He reminded them that in Christ Jesus, their guilt had been removed, their sin had been blotted out, and that in Christ their lives had new purpose and meaning. He was telling them that no matter their broken histories, and no matter their present suffering, in Christ Jesus they had been made worthy of God, and worthy to proclaim his gospel.  Jesus, who was righteous, suffered for the unrighteous, to bring them to God. 
            And how magnificent and how powerful is the work of God in Christ that guilt might be removed and sin blotted out?  As we read on Ash Wednesday from Psalm 103, “So far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.” That is a long way!  Peter, however, takes this even one step further, for he tell us that after his death, Christ went to proclaim good news to the spirits of those in prison.  This passage is considered one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, and what does it mean?  According to Peter, they were the ones from former times, the ones who did not make it onto the Ark when God was waiting patiently for their repentance, who disobeyed the word of God.  Peter is actually telling the Church that God’s mercy is so great that it extends to those who have died.  It says to me, that there is no one who is so sinful, so miserable, so broken that he or she is beyond the bounds of God’s grace, in this life, or the next.  What a wonderful thing to contemplate. If we believe not only that God is all-powerful, but all-merciful and all-loving, then we must believe that his power stretches not only from the heights but to the depths as well. His love extends beyond the grave. This is why the Easter Icon of the Orthodox Church shows Jesus trampling down the gates of hell and rescuing Adam and Eve, the primordial sinners, our ancestors in unworthiness, from its clutches.  St. Peter makes no bones about it, for he says Christ suffered for the unrighteous.         
            This is good news for us today.  We have a great privilege in the land in which we live. We can love and serve God without persecution, unlike the early Christians, and unlike Christians in some other places in the world today. Indeed, the heavenly throne room recently received the souls of 21 brave Coptic Christians, who would certainly have deemed themselves unworthy of the witness of martyrdom to which they were called, and yet through the power of Christ Jesus proclaimed their faith even to the last.  We have not been called to such a witness, but that should never be taken for granted. For although we are all unworthy in and of ourselves to proclaim the gospel of life in a culture of death, Christ Jesus makes us worthy witnesses. The point of all this is not to say that we are all called to such martyrdom. Indeed, God desires a world in which such martyrdom was not necessary, rather it is to say that Jesus has joined us in our suffering that in his victory over suffering and death, so too are we victorious.
            The ultimate point of Peter’s message to the Church is that the God, before whom we feel unworthy, looks upon us in our sin, in our brokenness, in our sense of unworthiness with great compassion and deep love. How do we know the almighty creator of heaven and earth cares about us? We know because in Christ Jesus, he came to us, to be with us, and in one supreme act of love participated in our suffering that we might participate in his glory.  He loves us so much that he chose not only to be with us in our worst, but to join us to him in his best.  The vision of Isaiah becomes our reality. In Christ Jesus, God turns the unworthiness and meaninglessness of our lives into worthiness and meaning. Where once we called, “who am I?” we now call “Here I am! Choose me!”  In Christ Jesus, we are made fit for joyful, meaningful, loving service, even when we shall meet hardship and trial.

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