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“STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded;”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

“Preparing for Our Lord’s Return”

This beautiful collect is famous for its call for God to “stir up … the wills of thy faithful people.”  Archbishop Cranmer used this old Latin prayer in our Book of Common Prayer.  In this collect, we ask God to stir up our wills, the “wills of thy faithful people”, so that in “bringing forth the fruit of good works”, we may be rewarded plenteously by God himself.

I have heard today called “stir up” Sunday.  These words are inspiring.  We hereby ask God to move us into action by quickening our wills.  The will is the part of ourselves that moves other parts of ourselves into action.  Think of this as cranking a lawn mower.  Before it is started, the lawn mower has an engine, blade, fuel, and physical structure holding it all together.  But one thing is lacking – getting the thing to start doing what it is made to do.

So it is for us.  We have reason, memory, and intellect; we have body, spirit, and all things necessary to love and to serve and to obey Almighty God.  But until we are spurred into action, until our wills are stirred up, we are all potential and no actuality.  In this prayer, we ask God to move us, to start us, to get us going so, in the words of the thanksgiving after Mass, “we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”

As Christians, we need to do more than sit pretty and receive God’s grace.  We are called to respond to God’s love; we are to do that which God would have us to do.  We are to “bring forth the fruit of good works.”

 

We pray this prayer on this Sunday, the Sunday next before Advent, for a reason.  During Advent, we are to do works of holiness and righteousness; we are to prepare to receive the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In the season of Advent in the Christian Year, the faithful look back and remember the first advent of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem and look forward to the second advent (or second coming) of Christ in power and great glory as He returns to put an end to suffering, misery, and death and gloriously fulfill His mission of saving His people and creation.

Advent is a time of compassionately looking back and expectantly looking forward.  Traditional practices of preparing for the coming of our King include lighting the candles of the Advent wreath, omitting our joyful Gloria in Excelsis at Mass, changing the liturgical color to purple and rose, singing Advent hymns, giving for missions in mite boxes, and preaching on the Four Last Things.

What are the “Four Last Things”?  They are death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell.  According to medieval and modern tradition, these are preached on the four Sundays of Advent.  This is part of preparing ourselves for Christ’s arrival, both in the past in His Incarnation and in the future when He returns again.

The ancient tradition of preaching on “The Four Last Things” on the Sundays in Advent (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), goes back to the early medieval period, more than a thousand years ago.  The Four Last Things were explicitly mentioned in a Confession of Faith at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274.  More than a hundred years later, Saint Vincent Ferrer particularly emphasized the Four Last Things in his preaching.  He died in 1419.  Since that time, it became embedded in the traditions of Holy Church.

First Sunday of Advent – November 30th – the subject is death,

Second Sunday of Advent – December 7th – judgment,

Third Sunday of Advent – December 14th – Heaven, and

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 21st – the subject is Hell.

They are called the four last things because these are the four last things until Christ returns for the Last Judgement, when He will finally and permanently separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, and the elect from the damned.  We are not gloomy when we consider these serious subjects, preparing for one of the most glorious times of the year, Christmas.  Instead, we take our joy and our preparation to meet that joy seriously.

As we acknowledge that we will die, be judged, and go to either Heaven or hell, so we encourage ourselves to build up what is weak in our lives, repent of our sins, and strive to more fully love our God and our neighbors.  We are reminded that whether we like it or not, whether it is a polite topic or not, each one of us will die unless God returns again first.

And whether we like it or not, once we die, Christ will judge us.  This is inevitable as we come face to face with our maker.  Simply being confronted by the ultimate being who is love himself, our faults and lack of love will become more evident than ever before.  And after the judgement, we will end up in either Heaven or Hell.  There is no third place where we will spend eternity.  We will live with God forever or not.  It is that simple.

These sermons are supposed to examine these last things before Christ returns and inspire us to bring “forth the fruit of good works” so that we of God may “be plenteously rewarded.”  We are to change our behavior and conform to the model of Christ our Lord.  We are to live our lives now as if we truly believed Christ was coming soon, because the fact is that Christ will return, and with His return, this broken mortal life as we know it will disappear into the glory of immortality.

In the words of St. Peter in his second epistle,

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

We do not know when Christ will return, only that He will return.  And when Christ returns, if you are anything like me, you will sorely regret that you did not spend your time now preparing for His return.  For Christ has told us that He will return again and that we will answer for how we have lived our lives.  He says in St. Matthew xvi.27, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.”

 

Here at St. Luke’s this Advent, we will follow the custom of Holy Church and prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas and in the future.  Our main goal now is to think ahead to next month on how we are going to join in the Church’s preparation for Christ’s return.  What concrete steps will we take this Advent to prepare for Christ’s return?

Will you take advantage of our weekday Masses to attend an extra Mass per week of Advent?

Will you take advantage of our Sunday Morning Prayer to add to your prayer life on the Sundays of Advent?

Will you forgo listening to Christmas music to concentrate instead upon the Church’s season of Advent, of preparing to make the most of Christmas?

Will you take on the responsibility of reading a chapter of Scripture each day of Advent?

Will you respond to the sermons on death and judgement, Heaven and Hell by confessing your sins to your priest this Advent?

Will you respond to the glory of Christ’s Incarnation, or taking on of our frail human nature, to give sacrificially over and above your tithe for missions with the mite box?

Will you reflect upon your calling from God and the need of your parish to discern a new area of ministry for you to enter into?

You do not have to decide today.  But Advent begins next week.  How will you prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent?

 

“STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded;”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

While St. Paul seldom boasts in his letters, he makes up for it here.  But the Corinthians have it coming.  For even though he evangelized them, they turned their back on him as soon as the Judaizers followed him, preaching that the Corinthians had to follow the Jewish Law in order to be truly Christian.  Thus, they felt that they were superior to St. Paul and his apostolic teaching.  He shows in this Epistle that, if they had any reason to have confidence in the flesh, then he had more.  He shows that he places his trust in Christ, rather than in the Law, more confidence in his weaknesses, than his supposed strengths.  Like a fool, he boasts in his weakness and the sufferings he had endured for Christ.  He powerfully shows his anger at, and disappointment in, the Corinthians.

This boasting in Christ instead of in his own merits records for posterity the sufferings St. Paul endured as a minister of the Gospel and Apostle to the Gentiles.  Indeed, his account of suffering here far exceeds what is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.  When we compare our suffering for the Gospel to his, we fall shamefully short.  We are pitiful compared to this hero of the faith who claimed his efforts were pitiful compared to Christ.  That should give us a proper perspective to consider our work on behalf of the Gospel of Christ.  What he freely gave again and again, we carefully guard and hold back again and again.

Let’s look at the Epistle verse by verse.

Verse 20:  “Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”  The Corinthians have been duped and treated poorly, and yet they think themselves superior to St. Paul!  They have mindlessly obeyed, spent lavishly on, been taken advantage of by, and submitted themselves to false teachers, like fools following whatever goofy fad ensnares the Hollywood elite.  If they can hearken to such fakers, then they can listen to St. Paul.

Verse 21:  “I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also.”  St. Paul says here, “as though we had been weak” although it was the Corinthians themselves who had been foolishly led.  He then leads into his major premise:  If anyone actually has reason to boast, you can be assured that he has more.

Verse 22:  “Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I.”  Here begins the boasting, although he had reiterated that this whole line of commentary is foolish.  He is every bit as Jewish as the Judaizer heretics are.  They have no superiority here.

Verse 23:  “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.”  If he is every bit as Jewish as they are, then note too that St. Paul has suffered greatly for the Gospel of our Lord in work, scourgings, prison time, and being surrounded by death.  They have nothing on him one way, and they have nothing on him the other.

Verse 24:  “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.”  Deuteronomy xxv.1-3 prescribes the maximum number of lashes allowable under the Law of Moses as forty.  In order to not inadvertently exceed this number, the number given was thirty-nine, so if they lost count, they did not violate the Law.  So St. Paul has received the maximum allowable scourging on five separate occasions.  This is not recorded elsewhere in Scripture.  We have here proof that St. Paul did many heroic things which were not recorded elsewhere in the New Testament.  We see here that the Jews persistently and with great determination attempted to shut St. Paul up.

Verse 25:  “Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;”  This verse is a traditional favorite of youth groups.  “Beaten with rods” was a Roman punishment, showing Roman hostility in addition to the previously noted Jewish hostility.  The whole world seemed to work against the Apostle to the Gentiles, seeking to silence the proclamation of the Good News.  He was stoned, the same punishment for which he held the coats of those who martyred St. Stephen.  He was shipwrecked three times before his voyage to Rome recounted in the Acts.  He spent “a night and a day” marooned in the open ocean, adrift at sea.  This is a tale of high adventure greater than one by Robert Louis Stevenson!

Verse 26:  “In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;”  He moves here to a nearly hypnotic repetition of where he had been in trouble.  What a catalog!  Who among us except the most seasoned travelers have even been to such a variety of places, much less suffered for our great Incarnate God there?  As for me, I think I have only been mildly in peril once by my own countrymen.  So many of our fellow saints have followed the way of St. Paul, have followed the way of Christ!  So much suffering, and for such a good cause!

Verse 27:  “In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”  We see here that not only has he suffered grave dangers, but he has survived in brutal discomfort.  I got a little chilly the other week.  Despite my own disease, I suffer not from watchings, hunger, thirst, cold, and nakedness.  When I think that I have it rough, I can think of the saints of old – and of today elsewhere in the world – and remember that we are promised no comfort save that of Christ and the Holy Ghost.  The correct perspective of our actual situation helps us govern our emotions and expectations, keeping us faithful and drawing us closer in loving-kindness to the Son of God.

Verse 28:  “Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”  And what follows the tribulations of torture, shipwreck, fasting, nakedness, and such?  The burden of “care of all the churches”.  Think of that the next time we welcome Archbishop Haverland to our fair parish.  Daily external hardships are only part of the apostle’s suffering.  The internal weight of the care of parishes, the burden of pastoral authority, the cure of souls is of such import that St. Paul mentions it in this privileged place in his list.

He remembers the churches he has founded.  He prays for them.  As we can see in his letters, also called epistles, St. Paul is constantly sending someone to visit a church for him, constantly pressing on to another mission site, disputing publicly in yet another city, being thrown into yet another jail for challenging the authority of the leaders of the synagogue.  St. Paul certainly cares for this church in Corinth, but he cares for many others as well.  This alone should chasten the Corinthians that they have been singled out for such a rant.  But St. Paul cares about the churches which he has not even visited, putting the Corinthians even more to their shame.

Verse 29:  “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?”  Many Christians throughout his mission field are weak and many suffer indignations every day.  And St. Paul is right there with them in body and in spirit.  He is weak when they are weak.  And he burns when they are offended.  He is not ashamed to say that he is weak; remember, he started today’s Epistle with saying as much.  And indeed, this leads to the next verse.

Verse 30:  “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”  St. Paul “will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”  This is madness in the eyes of the world.  Glory in my infirmities?  Infirmities are to be dismissed, saying “that’s nothing”, or they are to be denied, like saying that instead of being disabled I am “otherly abled”, or infirmities are to be pitied and raged against with anger and venom.

But our apostle is doing something different than our broken and deranged natural inclinations would have us do.  He is glorying in his weakness.  He is completely dependent upon his good God.  The entire world is against him, Jews and Romans both.  Yet he perseveres.  This is all due to Christ and to Him alone.  St. Paul knows that all the merit in the world is as nothing compared to the incomparable gift of grace in the Incarnation of Christ, His death upon the Cross, and His Resurrection with power and great glory.  When we acknowledge ourselves to be the weak creatures compared to the sovereign power of God, we open ourselves up to be the grateful beneficiaries of the grace, merits, and goodness of Christ.

You cannot receive anything in a closed fist.  Who of you would cross your arms across your chest and hopes that somebody would let you have your turn to hold the baby?  Who of you would duck your head away when your honey leans close for a kiss?  Who of you would come to Holy Communion and close your hands and your mouth and expect to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Christ?  You can’t normally receive what you are not open for.  And as St. Paul learned on his way to Damascus, the only way to receive grace when you are not open to it is to be struck blind and knocked to the ground.

As we approach this holy season of Lent, I challenge each one of you to find two things to change your life so that you are more open to receive grace.  I ask you to drop some impediment to God’s grace in your life.  Normally, this is in the form of a Lenten fast.  Have you been hitting the bottle too hard lately?  Drop the booze.  Too much sugar lately?  Cut out the sweets.  Suspect that television, delicacies, or loose talk is interfering with your relationship with God?  Change it up.

I furthermore ask you to add some particular aid to receiving God’s grace this Lent.  Walk the Stations of the Cross every Friday with us.  Say Mattins with us before Sunday School.  Attend a weekday Mass each week.  Make a Lenten Confession.  Dig into your St. Augustine’s Prayer Book and say a devotion to the Sacred Heart each day.

Add one discipline and subtract one distraction and you will see an improvement in your spiritual life this Lent.  I dare you.  Will you dare try?

 

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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“that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

5K races have taken off in popularity.  All sorts of people who would never run the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta or the Boston Marathon will try to run their local 5K race.  But running a race is not a matter of rolling off your couch and hitting the road.  You have to have good legs and healthy lungs.  You have to get up and go.  Most importantly, even if you have the willingness and the ability to do it, you have to actually practice running in order to grow strong, fast, and hardy enough to run a race.

So it is with our salvation.  We are born again as new Christians through belief in Christ and the waters of Holy Baptism.  God’s grace comes upon us and wipes us clean of sin and sets in us a right mind to pursue the things of God.  Most starkly, instead of going to Hell, we now are going to Heaven.  We do not earn this; this blessing of blessings is given to us.  Like little newborns, we do not even have to earn any part of this gift of life; we are open and receptive and receive God’s goodness.

But as we mature, as we grow strong legs and strong lungs in the Lord, so must we exercise the good gifts which God has given us.  We cannot walk the walk of faith by resting on our hindquarters.  We must put our rear in gear and follow Christ with our legs of faith.  We need to live under the shadow of God’s grace and use it every day if we are to grow strong in the Lord.

Thus, if we are to exercise the good gift or charism of intercessory prayer, we need to get to the business of praying for others.  If we are to exercise the theological virtue of loving-kindness, that means we need to get to the business of loving the Lord our God and our neighbors through specific acts of love.  If we are to exercise Godly wisdom, that means we need to get to the business of obeying the commandments of God and living in love each day, every day.

We are made fit to enter Heaven when our sins are wiped away in Holy Baptism.  But for those of us who do not die immediately after our Baptism, we will sin again.  God expects that we will sin less and our consciences will be convicted of our sin when we do sin, but we will sin again.  I dare say that each adult here has sinned since Baptism.  We will not stay clean and holy in the eyes of God if we do not confess our sins.  In short, there is more to our salvation than God’s applying the merits of the Cross of Christ to us in Holy Baptism.

So it is that the instant act of new life in Christ is a necessary part of a larger movement of grace.  If we are to live in Christ, then we must necessarily grow in Christ.  This is what St. Paul is talking about here in his Epistle to the Colossians.

 

In this epistle, St. Paul says that he had not visited Colossae, and the Christians there did not know him except by reputation.  As Fr. Massey Shepherd wrote, “St. Paul’s intercession is cast in general terms about the theme of spiritual growth both in good works and in the knowledge of God.”

So this epistle is a rather impersonal exposition about life in Christ and growth in the Holy Ghost.  St. Paul mentions seven things which show maturity in the Christian faith:  Wisdom, spiritual understanding, walking worthy, fruit in good work, increasing in knowledge of God, strengthened with might, and giving thanks.

Like him and the Colossians, we are each to be entering into and growing in these activities.  Each one of us is a distinct creature made by God in his image, so each of us will not look exactly alike.  However, each of us ought to be showing evidence of growth and maturity appropriate to our calling.

Are we wise?  Do we show spiritual understanding?  Do we “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing?”  Do we “bringeth forth fruit?”  Are we “increasing in the knowledge of God?”  Are we “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness?”  Are we “giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light?”

We do these things for the continued conversion of our soul and for the conversion of the souls around us, as well as the overflowing of God’s grace in our lives.  Our bearing the fruit of good work, our being strengthened with might, our giving thanks will be changing ourselves from sinfulness to godliness, noticeable to others and convicting of others, and glorifying to God.

Married couples and family members, even if all Christians, even if all serious Christians, and even if all members of the same parish, can be expected to jostle and bump into each other as they grow.  This is to be expected.  Love and patience are needed as different people grow in their own ways.

Spiritual growth is the maturity and continuation of our salvation.  As Christians, we are called to something, to a status, to a station, to a condition, to a way of being, not just to a person.  Or rather, being called to the Divine Person, we will be changed along the way.  Either way, sanctification is a real thing and one that is part of my journey and part of your journey.

 

Now, I am going to use five words which end in –ation.  You probably have heard of these.  If you are anything like me, then you also have a hard time remembering what they mean.  But these words help us gain understanding about salvation and growth in holiness, such as written in today’s Epistle.

These “-ation” words are justification, sanctification, consecration, purification, and assimilation.  Christ saves us in justification and sanctification.  Consecration, purification, and assimilation are aspects of sanctification.

Sanctification is thoroughly united with justification, even though St. Paul uses different vocabulary for them.  Sanctification is thereby tied to our salvation; our continued growth in holiness is connected with Christ’s saving us.  The two are inextricably bound.  This is one of the confounding aspects of both medieval and Reformation theology of salvation, or soteriology, where a host of different parties pried the two apart.  That is no good.

Now, sanctification has three aspects:  consecration, purification, and assimilation into the divine character.  That is, we are set apart as holy, or consecrated.  We are made clean from our sinful ways, or purified.  We are made to grow into the likeness of Christ, or assimilated.

To make holy, to sanctify, to consecrate is to set apart for God’s use.  Holy means set apart for God.  We are called out of the sinful condition of humanity and made Christ’s in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We are set apart from the carnal, or fleshy, things of this world.  This is often spoken of with regards to our salvation, to our justification, to use St. Paul’s term.  To be set aside for God’s purposes is to be consecrated, so in consecration we are set apart for God.

This happens initially and powerfully in Holy Baptism.  But we are re-consecrated from time to time as well.  Each time we are given grace, whether in the Blessed Sacrament, in our marriage or ordination, or in our prayers, we are yet again set apart from the things of this world, we are set apart to be God’s.

But to be kept consecrated, we cannot sully ourselves with the stain of sin.  Therefore, we must also be purified of all sin.  This second aspect of sanctification called purification assists in the keeping of this first aspect of sanctification called consecration.

We must keep God’s will as it is known to us in Holy Scriptures, Holy Church, and in our conscience.  We are to remain chaste and free from sexual sin.  We are to live in loving-kindness with other people.  We must live our lives in self-discipline.  And we are to regularly confess our sins in our private prayers, in the Offices and Mass, and sometimes even in private with a priest.  We must remain free from sin.  We must remove all obstacles that keep us away from God.

We are to grow into the likeness of the divine nature of God as it has been revealed to us in Christ our Lord.  He is God incarnate; He is God with us.  As He lived, so are we to live.  He avoided all sin.  He lived in the will of God the Father.  He prayed often and alone, yet He also worshipped in the Temple.  He loved everyone He met.  He prayed for His persecutors and died for our sins.  This is the life we too must live.  This is the life which will let us live in the presence of God for all eternity.  This is the original image of God in which we were made.  We must join in the divine character of God.  We must assimilate into Godliness.

Only through this consecration, purification, and assimilation are we to be both justified and sanctified and fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.  St. Peter quotes:  “Be ye holy; for I am holy,” in I St. Peter i.16.  Christ says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” in St. Matthew v.48.  It is only in the participation of the divine life of God that we are meet to enter into Heaven.

 

We are called to be mature Christians.  We are called to be wise in the Lord, to live our lives with spiritual understanding, to walk worthy in the Lord, to show forth good fruit through good works, to increase in the knowledge of God, to be strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long-suffering with joyfulness, and to give thanks to the Father.

How are we to do this?  We can only do this by growing.  If we are to claim the Holy Name of Christ, then we cannot stay as we are.  That’s right:  We are not good enough.  But not in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God.  We are not acceptable.  We are made acceptable through Christ, but we must afterwards grow to be like Christ.  Consecrated for God, we must purify ourselves of all sin and grow into the likeness of Christ.

We do this in the same ways that we have considering for months now:  Weekly worship, frequent Holy Communion, regular fasting, tithing, confessing our sins daily, weekly, and as needed, and keeping ourselves chaste.  We will burst forth in holiness and prayer and thankfulness to our Lord God as we diligently apply ourselves to running the race which he has set before us.

 

“that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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