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“WATCH thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.”

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

 

“The work of the evangelist”

Why do we sing the Gospel during the Mass?  Why do we stand when it is proclaimed?  Why do we sometimes process the Gospel out amongst the congregation to proclaim it?  Why must the Gospeller be in Holy Orders?

We read in Isaiah lii.7:  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”

Beautiful feet?  That sounds over the top.  Yet over-the-top is how we proclaim the Gospel both here at St. Luke’s and in catholic churches around the world throughout the ages.

St. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, from before His Annunciation till His Ascension into Heaven.  His is the Greatest Story Ever Told, and our patron saint, St. Luke the Evangelist, is one of the sacred four who told the story so that the rest of us might hear it.

 

The patron saint of our parish wrote almost as much of the New Testament as Saint Paul.  He is the only Gentile who wrote one of our Gospels.  According to Colossians iv.14, we know that he was a physician.  As a doctor and writer of a Gospel, he is considered the patron saint of doctors and healers.  His sign as evangelist is the ox with wings, giving us the name of our newsletter, the Winged Bull.

He is also the patron saint of artists.  During the Middle Ages, many Guilds of St. Luke encouraged and defended artists in important cities in Rome, Flanders, and across Europe.  Here at our parish, our Creative Christians group continues this tradition by encouraging both Christian art and Christian artists.

But St. Luke did not only write a Gospel leaving us inspired depictions of the life of the Blessed Mother, our Lord Christ, and the early Church.  St. Luke also did the work of an evangelist by journeying with St. Paul on at least two of his mission trips, staying with him in Rome.  Our patron is counted among the Seventy who Christ commissioned and sent out to do ministry in today’s Gospel lesson.

 

St. Luke wrote his Gospel in Greek, helping spread the Good News of Christ throughout the pagan Gentile world of the First Century.  The Early Church suffered greatly for proclaiming the Gospel.  St. Paul and all the Apostles save St. John met their Lord in the martyr’s death.

And lest we think that the persecution of Christians is a bygone practice, this Wednesday we celebrate the faithful Christian witness of eight Anglican clergymen whom the Japanese killed for preaching the Gospel in occupied New Guinea during World War II.  Tens of thousands of priests and millions of faithful Christians died at the hands of the Communists in Russia and elsewhere in the Twentieth Century.  The Moslems have killed far more over the centuries, and they are still at it today.

Closer to home, we hear rumblings of persecution.  I warned in my annual report last year of coming troubles.  As St. Peter writes in his first epistle, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:”

This week, news came out of Houston, Texas which has troubled the hearts and minds of many Christians.  Let us look into what the facts are:

The city council and mayor of Houston passed an ordinance which would permit women to use men’s bathrooms and men women’s bathrooms and allowing people to file complaints with the city government if they are not allowed to use the bathroom they want.

Houston preachers and others organized a petition for a referendum to overturn the ordinance at the November election.  The city government claimed that too many of the signatures were not valid and refused to schedule the vote.  Christian activists then sued the city to accept the signatures and thus the petition and put the ordinance to the vote.

In response, the city’s lawyers issued subpoenas to five conservative preachers to hand over sermons to determine of any preaching related to homosexuality, so-called gender identity, or even the mayor.  A subpoena is a legal writ compelling someone to appear before court or to surrender documents to the court.  These preachers would now have to surrender to a law court any sermon mentioning any of these topics.

The mayor has asked if the preachers gave instructions on how to sign the petition.  The city attorneys hold that the subpoenas are valid because the preachers worked to organize the repeal petition and are thus pertinent to the case.

Both conservative and liberal ministers have spoken out against the subpoenas.  There has been a public outcry over the city’s actions.  An interdenominational coalition of over 400 churches in Houston have opposed these subpoenas.  This local action has sparked national debate.  Some pastors have refused to hand over sermons.

The mayor and city attorney then agreed that the original subpoenas were too broad.  New subpoenas have now been drawn up which do not ask for sermons, but rather for speeches and presentations, and do not ask about homosexuality, but still ask for other things besides those on the petition.

You may ask what a conservative pastor’s PowerPoint presentation on the ordinance has to do with the validity of the signatures on the petition.  The answer is:  Nothing.  The city’s attorneys are still reaching beyond the appropriate legal necessity at hand, which has the effect of threatening the free speech of the preachers and the public practice of religion by the ministers of Christians.

A Christian – or another religion’s – minister preaching, speechifying, or presenting on the sexual nature of God’s Creation and on the divinely ordained morality which faithful people must practice are not crimes, do not threaten the state, and indeed support the wholesomeness, integrity, and the commonweal of the people.

The representatives of free American citizens are not called to sift through the words of religious leaders, looking for sedition.  The city is not a political organization which cannot tolerate dissent.  The governmental structures of this world have no legitimate role in approving or disapproving the voice of the Bride of Christ.  Our American governments have no legitimate role in intimidating preachers or believers.

 

We Continuing Anglicans directly descend from those who were quickened with zeal by the Assize Day Sermon by Blessed John Keble at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, in which he publicly from the University Pulpit criticized the Whig-controlled Parliament for reducing the number of bishops in Ireland without the approval of the Church of Ireland.  As your priest and rector, I stand in a very long line of bishops and priests who have criticized the state when the state has had the worldly effrontery to admonish and attempt to control Holy Mother Church.

This very day last year, Archbishop Haverland sat right there and in the words of our Book of Common Prayer challenged me “faithfully to feed that portion of the flock of Christ which is now intrusted to you; not as a man-pleaser, but as continually bearing in mind that you are accountable to us here, and to the Chief Bishop and Sovereign Judge of all, hereafter.”

It would certainly please many people if we decided that we would ignore the things of God and whole-hearted accept the things of man.  But that would be forsaking God by making us pleasing to men, and I have been told not to be a “man-pleaser”.

My wife once saw a person wearing button which answered an unasked naughty question with “No thanks, I’d rather go to heaven.”  We lives our lives in this world, oftentimes forgetting that our lives are given to us by our good God in Heaven.  We may choose to do many things.  But we will be called to divine judgement one day.  All choices are not the same.  Some are right, and some are wrong.  When we are enticed, seduced, and tempted to make a wrong choice, it is good for us to say, “No thanks, I’d rather go to Heaven.”

I know you.  I know that most of you won’t budge if this Houston business happened here.  You know me.  You know that I won’t budge if this happened here.  We know our archbishop.  We know that he won’t budge if this happened here.

And this hasn’t happened here in Augusta.  Indeed, we elected a preacher of the Gospel as our mayor.  But this has now happened in these United States.  My dear children of God, I would rather you live your lives in peace, but I tell you this day that we will soon be facing worse, and not just in Texas, but here on the banks of the Savannah River.  Our sister parish across the river, All Saints’, Aiken, witnesses to the Gospel in a state where a Federal court might force their county to issue marriage licenses to people of the same sex.  Dark days are coming.

We here at St. Luke’s will continue to preach the Gospel of Christ our Lord, especially to those who need to hear it.  Many stories are told of the old Roman martyrs, some of whom are named in our Mass, who witnessed to their tormenters and executioners to great effect, converting souls in the Holy Name of Jesus.

If anyone in this world wants to know what I preach, come here to St. Luke’s most any Sunday at 10:30 and hear for himself.  I even put my sermons up on a webpage.  I would love for everyone out there to hear me preach about our Lord and Savior!

The government can hear our public proclamation.  Those who try to order us about and deny us our freedom both to practice and proclaim the True Religion of Christ are the ones who need to hear it the most.  We shall not back down.  St. Luke our patron did not back down.  St. Paul did not back down.  Fr. Keble did not back down, and neither did the faithful gathered together at the Congress of St. Louis in 1977.

We at St. Luke Church are uniquely positioned to proclaim the Holy Gospel to souls in peril here in Augusta as the times grow darker.  We preach the unadulterated truth, the whole Gospel, all the Sacraments, without Roman and Eastern doctrinal accretions, and we do so in the traditional language of this nation.

Everything St. Luke wrote was to tell other souls about Christ.  He commended Christ to everyone at all times.  He wrote down timeless truths about our Lord that the other Evangelists did not record.  When we stand under the name of the Evangelist St. Luke, we stand for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And like St. Luke, we are not only to sit down and tell other people about Christ, but we are to get up and tell people face to face, traveling to them to share the good news of Christ our Lord.

 

After St. Paul says in today’s epistle, “WATCH thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry”, he continues and says “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.”

The day is coming when we will have to answer for our faith in Christ.  That day may come when we draw our last breath and slip beyond the veil of this mortal life, when we will face the individual judgement.  Jesus will look at each of us and know what we have done with the life He suffered and died to save, that life which the Holy Ghost bestowed with graces.

Or the day is coming when someone out there will make us chose to follow the world or to follow Christ.  Maybe someone will try to seduce you into sexual sin.  Maybe a crook will tempt you to help him commit a crime.  Maybe your own elected government will coerce you to deny Christ and follow the popular godless way.

Will you stay the course and profess your faith in Christ when your livelihood and social standing are threatened?  Will you stay the course and profess your faith in Christ when your life is required of you?  What will you say when they come to coerce you to renounce your faith?  Are you able to say that today?

 

“WATCH thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.”

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

 

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“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

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

 

“Can’t Get Saved Till You Know You Need Saving”

At the end of today’s Gospel, the rich man asks Abraham to save his brothers.  Though he suffers torment for his neglectful life, he genuinely loves his brothers.  He doesn’t want them to suffer his hellish fate.  So from across the great gulf, the rich man asks Abraham to send the comforted Lazarus back to warn his brothers of the torment that awaits them unless they turn from their wicked ways.

“Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Since our Lord Christ is the one telling this story, and since He is the first of all men died and rose from the dead into everlasting life, we can read this and assume He means Himself.  That is, if the wicked do not heed the Law and the prophets, then they will not heed the Son of God rising from the dead.

Christ has not come as a warning, but as a solution to the hitherto intractable problem of sin and death in our world.  The Law of Moses and the prophets of Israel show the way to holiness and good behavior to the nation of Israel and unto the whole world.  But people have not heeded their calls to righteousness.  People instead continue living lives of selfishness and sin.  People would rather feel pleasant sensations than face the objective hard reality of goodness and truth.  We would rather feel good with our friends and family than face the truth of our relationship with Christ.

Each of us who has lived into maturity has faced the choice whether to live inside of loving-kindness or live outside of loving-kindness.  Each of us has faced the decision of whether or not to follow our baser instincts rather than do the right thing.  The easier route is almost always the wrong route.  The wide inclusive way is almost always the way to brokenness and selfishness.

Christians may find this appeal to the Law and the prophets reminds us of the warning of St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

But the relationship between law and faith is not truly one of contradiction.  We read in St. James:  “wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”  After all, he reasons, “The devils also believe and tremble.”

So how can it be that if the brothers heed not Moses and the prophets neither will they be persuaded if one rose from the dead?  Why does Christ tell such a great story to end it with this teaching?  How can Moses and the prophets matter so much to the good people of metropolitan Augusta today?

 

The beginning of the answer lies in that great Summary of the Law recited here all but one Sunday a month:

“THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

We need to get right with God; we need to get right with our fellow man.  St. Paul writes in that same epistle:  “…behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The next clue is the basic kerygma, or preaching message, of the New Testament:  Christ is God who came down among us, died for us, rose again from the dead, and saved us all from sin and death.

Without that operative bit, “rose again from the dead”, we cannot be saved.  That jump from Christ’s death to our salvation in His Resurrection from the dead is only possible for those who operate within some kind of goodness told of in the law and the prophets, the kind of goodness which depends upon (“hangs”) all the law and the prophets.

This is because one of the most important parts of the Law of Moses for us is to quicken our sense of sin.  As St. Paul says in Romans:

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”

If we do not think that good things are good, then we also do not think that bad things are bad.  If Christ came to save us from our sins, the burden of these ultimately bad things which separate us from God, and we do not think separation from God is ultimately bad, then we see no need for Christ to save us.  We think that we do not need Christ, His Church, and His Sacraments because we misperceive the world around us.  That is, we hold tight the lie that we do not need saving.  Thus, we do not need a savior.

This is most obviously true with those who hold that nothing means anything, or nihilists.  Some atheists fall into this category.  Also, Buddhists are resistant to faith in Christ because they believe – and theirs too is a leap of faith – that pain is an illusion and death is not a real thing.  If pain and death are not actual problems, then you do not need actual relief from them, and you do not need the Great Physician of our souls.

Part of the proclamation of the Gospel which we Anglicans have tried to be too polite to preach is that things are bad, death is a real problem, all that we do to try to accommodate ourselves to pain and death is wrong-headed, and we need saving.  We would rather keep our position in society than appear ridiculous, speak against the culture, and risk losing it.  We would rather participate in the sins of others by concealing them, defending them, or simply remaining silent.  This is not the Gospel of Christ.  This is what Christ preached against and would save us from.

Instead, we must loudly and openly acknowledge the wrongness – the sinfulness – of the flesh, the world, and the devil.  We should live such lives of goodness that others find us to stand out from this world of sin, pain, sickness, and death.  Our words and our actions should prick the consciences of those around us.  Others should find us uncomfortable yet fascinating to be around.  Others should be constantly surprised that we do not act as others act.  Others should find themselves drawn to how we behave, to how we love them.  We should be beacons in the darkness, candles on candlesticks, not under bushels.

I guarantee you that if we practice this, it will draw negative attention to us.  Is this too high an honor to render to Christ?  When persecutors spill the blood of martyrs, is this unfortunate?  Or is this their greatest glory?  Is it not rather the greatest sermon their souls could sing forth?  Their ultimate declaration that they follow the ways of their good God no matter what the cost?  Their ultimate declaration that they will not be persuaded by the ways of sin, disease, pestilence, murder, and death?  Rejection by the world is our treasure!

Dear children of God, we must show the loving-kindness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost forth in our lives.  We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our minds.  We must love our neighbor as ourselves.  We must show forth the light of Christ in this broken world so that God the Holy Ghost can prick the consciences of those who lie wallowing in the despair of sin and death who are waiting – just waiting – for the hour of their deliverance to come.

The goodness and holiness which others see in us greatly affects what the Holy Ghost can do in the hearts of men.  Every wicked and selfish act we commit takes those closest to us further from Christ.

Will you instead dare to tell forth the Good News of Christ in your actions and in your love?

 

“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

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

 

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“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

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

 

How old are we?  We value our history, yet we often forget how old we really are.  We think of the past ten years here and the founding of this parish thirty-two years ago.  We think of the independence of the Episcopal Church in the late Eighteenth Century and the first Mass at Jamestown in the early Seventeenth Century.  We think of the Reformation, the Great Schism, the Ecumenical Councils, and the early Church.

But we go much further back.  The Temple Christ was presented in was built in 516 B.C., twenty-five hundred years ago, and there had been another Temple before that, and the Law had been given centuries before that.  We and our spiritual ancestors have been worshipping the Lord our God for well over three thousand years.

Christians value what is old.  The blessing of candles was added to our celebration of this feast a full thousand years ago.  The events of this feast described in the Gospel happened two thousand years ago.  Both Simeon and Anna were quite elderly and waited for many years to behold the Christ.  Christ was presented to the Temple and the Blessed Virgin Mary was purified according to the ancient Law of Moses.

We do not throw away our old customs and people here.  Indeed, our young are expected to follow in the elder ways, just like our older folk are.  We are not interested in changing with the times.  We are interested in remaining faithful to our Lord.  Christ, Who transformed history and the world by coming into the world, submitted Himself to Law and the customs of the Chosen People again and again.  As it says in Proverbs xxii.28:  “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.”

It is from this deep connection to the goodness and glory of God shining in the past that we take the light of Christ out into the world today.

When you drive a golf ball, hit a hockey puck, or throw a football, you bring your club, your stick, your arm back to whip it forward for great effect.  We draw strength from the past as we live the Gospel in this present day.  We join in with the prophets, patriarchs, and saints of more than three thousand years when we proclaim Holy Scripture, live in loving-kindness, and show forth the light of Christ into the world right outside those red doors.

 

This connection with the past is a particularly Jewish and Christian concern, for ours is a religion of history.  History doesn’t matter with the moon god or Buddha.  Christ was born on a particular day and presented to the Temple forty days afterward.  History matters for us.

The earliest Christian heretic, Marcion, made the first formal canon of Scripture, in which he cut out the entire Old Testament and most of the New.  Marcion’s heresy held that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament.

But the Son of God was present at the creation of the world.  The Son of God sent the God the Holy Ghost to speak to the prophets.  The Son of God was born a baby in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus.  Marcion taught some kind of religion, but that religion was not Christianity.

For Christianity is the renewal of the Jewish religion for all people, under the Messiah, the Christ.  As St. Paul says in Galatians iv.4:  Christ was “born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those under the law.”  St. Paul, who is the Apostle to the Gentiles, was very clear that Christ came first for the Jews.  Indeed, Christ Himself stated this exact same thing.

Christ completes the Law, and the New Covenant completes the Old.  If you look in the Prayer Book or your bulletin, you will see that this feast is called both the Presentation and the Purification.

The Purification and the Presentation both derive from the birth of Christ by the Blessed Virgin Mary, a singular act of our salvation intimately involving the two greatest figures of our salvation.  And both of them obey the Law of Moses in the circumcision, the presentation, and the purification.  Christ and St. Mary both fulfill the Law.  They are both good Jews.

 

Christ fulfilled all righteousness when His Body, the new temple, was presented into the old Temple.  We have absolutely 100% continuity with the Jews of old.  By our entrance into the death and resurrection of Christ in Holy Baptism, we are joined with Christ and made members of Him.  We, who are not born Jews and part of the Old Covenant, are joined with Christ our Lord and made, in effect, into Jews through Him.

Through the outward cultic sacrifices of the Temple, we who are joined with Christ now offer spiritual sacrifices through the new Temple, His Body.  As you have seen today, we continue this cultic presence of the Old Testament with our Christian worship which includes incense, priests, Scripture readings, and the Ten Commandments.

Christ’s first desire was to save the Jews.  Saving the Gentiles is secondary, especially in the sense that it relies upon God’s redeeming work in Israel.  God’s salvation of Israel prepares and spills over graciously into the Gentile part of humanity.  Salvation comes through the Jews.  Any denial of this perverts the ministry of Christ into something unscriptural and unchristian, a thing for anti-Semites and the heretic Marcion.

We who are not born into the covenant of Israel are not God’s second choice, exactly, but it was not through us that God wrought salvation in our fallen world.  It is through the Jews that salvation has come to us all.

Have you been a staunch member of this parish a long time?  Are you of a good family?  Are you among the wealthy?  Know that no matter how superior your social position is in this society at large or in this parish in particular, you are a sojourner, an immigrant, a newcomer; you are an undeserving recipient of God’s free grace.  As the old saying goes, we are beggars telling other beggars where to find a meal.  God raised up Israel to be set apart from all the rest of the world, and from the tribe of Judah did God the Father send His only-begotten Son of God to be born of a daughter of Jacob, Mary Ever-Virgin.  Through the Jews did salvation come, and from the Jews has come “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel”.

 

We who are Baptized have died and risen again in Christ.  We are no longer part of the world.  God calls us out of the world.  As Christians, we are part of something far grander than the things of this world.  Christ has gone before us and made us citizens of Heaven.  This world is crumbling away, and there is no stopping it.  We have been saved from it, and we are being saved from it.

We read in Isaiah viii.15:  “And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.”  Christ will be – and was – and yet remains – “unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness”.  Christ divides men one from another.  He says in St. Matthew x.34:  “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

This sinful world is a tough place.  But God is tougher.  God the Son can take all the blasphemies and humiliations we can give Him and still defeat sin and death.  This Presentation of Christ to the Temple, along with the Circumcision and the finding of the boy Christ in the Temple, shows that there is more to Christ’s early life than angels and animals and mangers.  Today’s feast points us towards Golgotha … and beyond.  In the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, today we grow close to the Pre-Lenten season.

The finest and swankiest people of Israel would have no doubt sagged in dismay if they had known the true nature of the gentle infant carried that day through the streets of Jerusalem.  Years later, those same people and kinds of people shouted “crucify Him” to that same babe in that same city.  Christ upset, literally overturned, the sinful nature of the world.  Those who had grown comfortable in and profited from this fallen world would suffer as a result of the coming salvation.

Christ challenges the prejudices of those who rule this world.  Christ’s witness of loving-kindness and obedience to God the Father smells of rebellion to the authorities of this world.  Christ spent much of His ministry on earth with the poor commoners of Judea.  Perhaps He knew them better because God the Son came down from Heaven into a family that had to offer the pauper’s sacrifice of two turtledoves at His Presentation to the Temple.

One Herod killed a region full of little boys to try to suppress Christ’s Advent.  Another Herod decapitated St. John Baptist at a banquet.  The Roman governor Pilate washed his hands clean of Christ.  The rich and powerful and well-heeled of this world did not welcome Christ.  And of course they would not.  They wanted to kill Him.  He was willing to die for them.  That’s the biggest difference in the world.

 

Would we strive for holiness?  Would we love our Lord and each other?  Would we be a light to the world?  Let us reach out to our Lord Christ.  Let us throw ourselves and our brokenness, our alienation, our sinful thoughts, and our wicked acts onto his broken and bruised back and let Him carry us.  Let us change our habits and our ways to fit with the new world of grace and loving-kindness which Christ brings down to us from Heaven.  Let us carry Christ in our hearts out into the world.

 

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

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

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“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”

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

 

Hell

 

Those words of St. John Baptist build upon the prophecy of Isaiah, where in the fortieth chapter he says:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

St. John Baptist, one of the central figures of Advent, called men to repentance.  The tricky part of calling for repentance is that it assumes a couple of rough things.  First, calling for repentance assumes that there is something to repent from.  In other words, you’re doing something wrong.  Second, calling for repentance assumes that there is a better way.  In other words, I’m doing something right.  Fundamentally, a call for repentance is a call to make a choice.

In Deuteronomy, we read of an earlier choice.  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life.”  The whole story of the Bible, from the Law through the Prophets and culminating in Christ, points us the way to righteousness, the way to Heaven, the way to communion with God forever.

But if we may choose life, then there is another way we may choose, and we are free to choose it:  Hell.

 

Speaking of Hell makes us sound like loons.  Nobody in polite society wants to hear us talk about Hell.  But Hell is a central doctrine of the New Testament.  Christ spoke of Hell more than anyone else in the Bible, warning people from Hell to salvation in Him.  Hell is mentioned in the Apostles Creed.  Hell is a reminder that each of us faces an ultimate choice about our fate.  This is impolite.  We want to ignore it.  We want to lock it in the cellar with the red-headed step-child.  We want to ameliorate this doctrine, soften it.  We want to explain it away.  As a child I asked about Hell.  I was told:  ‘There is a Hell, but no one really is in it.  Maybe Hitler.’  Hell is awkward!

It is so awkward, that if we lower the standards for Christianity by removing it, more people will find us more attractive.  Here at our parish, we are committed to growing.  Many of us are praying and thinking hard about what we can do to grow and spread the Kingdom of God.  If we toss aside the doctrine of Hell, then more people here in Augusta will find us palatable.  But those people who would then come here would remain unconverted to the full Gospel of Christ, and we as Anglican Catholics are committed to preaching God’s truth entire.  We have seen all too well the dangers of preaching simply what we like, discarding our Prayer Book and rewriting Church teachings.

When we teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we hold up our people to Christ so that they may be truly converted, heart and soul.  But many find holding up the whole truth offensive.  In the days to come, they will find it more and more offensive.  To offer real Christian discipleship to some, many will turn us down.  This too is part of having a choice.

 

Now just because Hell and permanent alienation from God and goodness and joy and life are terribly sad choices doesn’t mean that they aren’t choices.  Therefore, blinding ourselves to the reality that some people make these horrible choices is not noble, it is pathetic.  Hell is a logical, Scriptural, and necessary part of Christian doctrine.  Mature Christians, that is, Baptized and Confirmed adult believers, must sternly look this possibility in the face lest we have no happy effect upon those who have not yet committed their lives to Christ.

Admittedly, choosing is a tricky thing.

This can be seen by the parable of the two sons in St. Matthew xxi:28–31:

A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.  He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.  And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.  Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first.

Flapping your gums and moving air about, pantomiming pure and soulful answers is easy.  At the end of the day, you get up off your duff and go to work in your father’s vineyard . . . or you don’t.  Christ makes this most clear.

Indeed, Christ speaks of relentlessly evil choices in the parable of the wicked husbandmen in St. Luke xx:9-16:

A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time.  And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty.  And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty.  And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out.  Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him.  But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.  So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them?  He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, God forbid.

Some sinners are unrepentant and choose to continue to sin.  They are relentless in their movement away from Christ and vigorous in their pursuit of self-interest.

In that little gem of a book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.

Christ is very clear what He would have us do:  Follow Him.  But sometimes laying down your nets and following Christ is not as difficult as it gets.  When the going gets really rough, Christ turns to an equally rough saying in St. Matthew v.30:

And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

 

But we should not so much seek to avoid Hell as to embrace Christ, and with Him, all goodness, righteousness, health, peace, and life everlasting.  All this, in the presence of God, is Heaven.

What have we to do to gain Heaven and forever lose Hell?  We must participate fully in Christ and His salvation.  In the words of St. Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans:

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

Every member we have is ours to make choices with.  But notice here how the apostle focuses on the heart and the mouth.  Our heart is where our treasure is.  If you value more highly your wit, your lineage, your possessions, your politics, or even your family higher than you value Christ, then your heart is not in the right place.

Your heart is where you love.  I love Christ.  I love my wife.  I love my mama.  I love my country.  I love my friends.  But without Christ, none of these loves would stand.  For Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  He was present at creation, and He knew me in my mother’s womb.  As St. John wrote:  “We love him, because he first loved us.”

I was asked once if a court of law sought to convict me of being a Christian, was there enough evidence to secure a conviction?  A court cannot read my heart, but it sure can hear my words.  Not only must I believe in my heart, but I must confess with my lips.

Here in St. Luke Church, we acknowledge Christ at Mass, Offices, Baptisms, Confirmations, Institutions, and Burials.  And that’s just in worship!  I walk around here and Augusta and hear from your lips the faith you place in Christ.  Well, I hear it from some.  If you aren’t using your lips to confess your faith in Christ on your own time, then I’d say that you have some work you need to get to.

 

My dear sons and daughters, we must believe in our hearts, we must confess with our lips, and we must let go of those things which keep us from Heaven by dragging us down to Hell.  Our respectability, our patriotism, our family, our work, our ideals, the things of this world.  These are usually good things, perhaps even things to which we are called to do.  Yet if we do even one of them to the exclusion of loving Christ first and foremost, then we have given up on living with Him forever.  For Christ must come before our respectability, our patriotism, our family, our work, and our ideals.  And if we are with Christ foremost, then we can rest assured (Romans viii.38-39) “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If Christ comes first, then all the rest will follow.  If we put Christ second, then we never had any part of Him.  And that, by definition, is Hell.

 

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.”

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

 

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