Tag Archives: Lent

Taking Our Life In Our Hands

1 Corinthians 11:23-32 
Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012
The Church of the Holy Spirit, Orleans, Massachusetts
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

O Cherished Night, two nights from the Dawn!

Dearest Lord Christ, if uncomprehending we must remain, grant to us, at least, an undistracted love and awe.

Tonight, we commemorate the Last Supper, which Jesus shares with his disciples before he goes forth to his death. We are celebrating the institution of the Eucharist; indispensably central to our life as Christ’s People. It’s dear, especially, to our hearts as Christians of the Episcopal tradition. Characteristically, we are perhaps better at intuiting the importance of this night than articulating it. That’s not so bad: after all, it’s really beyond all possible articulation. But we hear; ponder and receive.

“The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

These words never grow old. I’ve been a priest for over thirty years. I’ve presided at Eucharist thousands of times. In all the years, through ups and downs, attention and distraction, the self-attesting power of these words has always been evident: A narrative central to our purpose and mission.

If we combine the record of Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians with the Gospel texts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke we have the full formula that we know.

“TAKE, EAT! DRINK FROM IT, ALL OF YOU!” (Matthew 26:26,27)

Those are commands—not suggestions. Not, “feel free to sample, if you take a notion.” Commands; expressed in their own way in John’s Gospel, too: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)

Renewed attention to these words has reawakened us to the Lordly Command—and our following call, as the Church, to share. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” We have been reawakened to the awareness that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not a “top-off” to some humanly achieved “state of grace.” The Eucharist is food for the journey: divinely established means to the divinely appointed end.

The Divine Commands, “Take, eat! Drink from it, all of you,” are uttered to the unworthy, undeserving, and unprepared. God pays for what God orders. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” But there’s a lot going on in these words, too, that we may likely pass by, all too quickly.

While we ought to be truly grateful for much needed reawakenings, I wonder, sometimes, if there might be another unhelpful spiritual reduction going on in our thinking these days. What I mean is this: the reduction of the Sacrament to a hospitality ritual—a corporately self-serving proclamation of how very nice we are. (Unlike, of course, those others.)

But the Sacrament won’t be so reduced. The Proclamation is not about us. The Eucharist is a risky business. After all, we’re taking our life in our hands.

Immediately following Paul’s setting forth of the Words of Institution Paul has a mindful challenge to offer. This follow-up unfortunately now often gets dropped from the Maundy Thursday Epistle lection. We’ve included it, even though it feels a bit disquieting.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

Well, that certainly puts us in a tough spot! Is this just a bit of alien piety beyond which we’ve thankfully moved? I think not. More ancient devotion thought a lot about it—and really did much more than just think. It prayed and worked with the challenge. And there’s more in it for us today than we may be inclined to admit.

There’s a section in our current Book of Common Prayer, something of an antique holdover from the old Books. For a number of reasons, it no longer has much of a workable place in most Episcopal worship services today. However, I’m convinced that it still is valuable, at least from time to time, in our own personal reflections. It’s called “An Exhortation,” and it’s found on page three hundred sixteen. Don’t worry, I won’t be reading it all the way to the end. Not quite. I invite you to open up a Prayer Book now, and take a look. The red volume in the pew racks. Page three hundred sixteen.

Whether it feels congenial or not, I’d invite us to be present with it; pray with it—breathe with it, as I say, and see what it may have to say to us. It’ll be OK. We can take the time. It’s Holy Week, after all.

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.

Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our Savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

We may well wonder: Where’s the Good News in this? Are we caught between a rock and a hard place? It sounds so “judgmental.”

It is!

However, the words of First Corinthians—and their pastoral expansion in the Exhortation—are not meant to be a barrier to participation, but an invitation to faithful mindfulness.

In spite of all our best and necessary efforts, when we draw near to this Table we are coming to judgment. But if we come in faith, we do so eagerly. Because we are speaking of the Saving Judgment which God in Christ has undertaken on our behalf!

As we heard,

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26)

That’s where this cherished night leads—and must lead. There’s no fast-forwarding, no skipping over the tracks to the short-circuited “happy ending.” If we try to do so, we miss the point. It would be like cutting, over and over again, to the last five minutes of the grand symphony—its glorious culmination that can only be understood in the context of all the music that went before.

It won’t do to evade the empty, difficult starkness that will soon be upon us. Soon, yet very soon.

If we want to get to the “there” that we love, we have to go the way that Jesus goes. And because of where Jesus is going—where Jesus went—we can now live in the “impossible place,” and there find a renewal we could never have before imagined.

“The light is with you for a little longer.” (John 12:35) It will be dark soon. That’s where the Light is going. Shortly after the episode in this evening’s Gospel passage, which powerfully sets forth Christ’s loving Servanthood, in fact almost immediately after, we hear perhaps the most poignant words in all the Gospels. “And it was night.” (John 13:30) That’s where Light will now take its place: our place, in the night.

So, Jesus is about to go forth to what the shared Bread and Cup mean—what they contain; what they communicate.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And that is the Good News! No merely human hospitality ritual; no mere expression of genial cheer.

The Eucharist is a hospitality ritual, of course—not ours, but the costly hospitality of God Incarnate, who will die in our place, that He might give us His life. Costly love: Christ’s Life for ours; Christ’s Life in ours. There’s no other way to get there.

We can trust this Lord; Jesus knows what he’s doing. So, here’s the Word to all of us; to you, to me, to all who belong to Christ. This is the word from the Table of the Lord: Draw near in repentance and faith! Come forward to your Saving Judgment and new birth! Put down the old, tired self-protective scripts. (No one believes them anymore, not even you!)

TAKE, EAT! DRINK FROM IT, ALL OF YOU!

TAKE HOLD, AND LIVE!

TAKE YOUR LIFE IN YOUR HANDS!

There’s a story about Dwight L. Moody, the noted—in fact, notably extravagant—nineteenth century American evangelist. I don’t know if it’s fully factual, or not. Perhaps it is an apocryphal story, after all. I like it nonetheless.

Moody is credited with the establishment of the “Altar Call,” a characteristic feature of modern revivalism. We may have seen an Altar Call, at least in broadcast form, from one of the old Billy Graham Crusades. The sermon would end with an appeal to turn to Christ. And the people in the stadium would then be invited to get up from their seats, come down, and gather before the pulpit in prayer; all this as an expression of their new (or renewed) commitment in faith as Christians. Well, Dwight Moody is said to have been inspired for the idea, in the first place, by seeing people go forward to receive the Eucharist at a service of Holy Communion at Saint James Episcopal Church, Chicago!

There’s something to that.

All who will draw near to this Table; those who have been coming here for decades, and those for whom—perhaps—this night is a first visit, are being summoned to the grace and wonder of ongoing conversion.

In this life, when we come to the Altar, we will always be “sinners coming home.”

Sharing in the Eucharist of Christ is, indeed, an assurance, comfort, consolation, delight, and joy—a blessing beyond and beneath all our possible expression. But, once again, there are unhelpful reductions good to avoid. Like all the greatest gifts, the gift of Holy Communion is sometimes hard to receive. Rightly so. We can’t reduce it to some feel-good tonic. (How could that be?) Nor can we turn it into a merely individual project. (It’s Communion, after all.)

More risky business. Jesus will be doing things that we can’t fully anticipate. (Maybe it’s better for us that way.) There are parts of all of us that would much rather remain contentedly unaware. Waking up has its burdens! One thing that we can be sure that Jesus will do is to lead us out of our habitual insistence on seeing the problems of our life, over and over again, simply as the product of the bad “other people.” We do this globally, in society, and—most certainly—we do it at the personal level. Jesus is going to lead us to confront our own stuff. But never again will we have to try to do so on our own. By Grace, we will know peace. Also by Grace, we will undertake the challenging interior journey. The renewal of the world starts in the depths of human hearts. Once again, no shortcuts!

In Eucharist, Jesus gives us His very life. The blessings and burdens of receiving are so closely bound together that it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which. I’m reminded of words from the concluding chapter of C. S. Lewis’ well-known classic, The Screwtape Letters, speaking of the redeemed souls who come to the heart of Heaven: “Pains [they] may have to encounter, but they embrace those pains. They would not barter them for any earthly pleasure.”

So, what about suffering—our own and that of others? No easy answers. But in Eucharistic Life we are given to know that even our terrible nights and all our cups of dismay are held in the Night and the Cup of the Lord Jesus.

Because of Christ’s sweaty Agony in the garden—and all that will follow—never again will we have to be owned by our fear, come what may. We may not understand what’s going on, but now we may learn to let go of the old gripping panic.

Nothing that has happened to us, nothing that can happen to us, will be beneath the reach of our Lord’s saving intention—or outside the realm of his saving competence. Nothing. We don’t have to have it all figured out. Take hold, and live. Before the gracious Death of Christ, which this Sacrament proclaims: “Behold what you are; become what you receive.”

In our personal lives and in the history of the Church, we are blessed with many wonderful examples of what this looks like when it is lived out. “So great a cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1) united at this Table.

In recent days I’ve found myself thinking, once again, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the midst of the nightmare of the Nazi regime, this young German theologian offered a costly witness to Christ. He had many opportunities to play it safe. He didn’t. In the Spring of 1943 he was arrested. Early in 1945, he was taken from Buchenwald concentration camp to Schoenberg Prison. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, just as he concluded a service in a school building, two men came in with the chilling summons, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.” He said to another prisoner, “This is the end; for me, the beginning of life.” He was hanged the next day, April 9, at Flossenburg Prison.

In the closing days of 1944, in the midst of his exterior imprisonment, he wrote a prayer to Christ. Like much of what he wrote during that time, it has a radiance and peace that can only come from above. Bonhoeffer was very much a realist. He surely knew where things would likely go. Nevertheless, his prayer seems a fitting conclusion to all that we are now considering. I’d like to share it with you now.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,

And confidently waiting come what may,

We know that God is with us night and morning,

And never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,

Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;

Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation

For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming

With bitter suffering, hard to understand,

We take it thankfully and without trembling,

Out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us

The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,

We shall remember all the days we lived through,

And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

Amen—and amen.

Seeing What’s There

Year A, Fourth Sunday in Lent: John 9:1-41
April 3, 2011
The Rev. Adam S. Linton

In all of Holy Scripture, there’s nothing else quite like the Gospel of John. Yes, of course, in some broad senses it has similarities with the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s a narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus culminating in the story of his cross and his resurrection. Nevertheless, there’s really nothing quite like the Gospel of John in all the rest of the Bible.

The whole Bible (even the parts that we might count as insignificant or experience as off-putting) bears to us the council of God. None of it is dispensable. However, in the impossible circumstance of being asked to take only one of the books of the Bible with me to a desert island, I would with all the appropriate reluctance say, “The Gospel of John.”

John’s Gospel is filled with paradox and seeming contradiction. We’re thrown off balance, and we’re lead to different ways of looking at things.

I invite us, sometime during this Lent, to read all of John’s Gospel straight through. It would take a morning or an afternoon or evening, but well worth doing. As we look at the whole sweep of John’s gospel, much of its first half is taken up with a series of seven signs, revealing to us incrementally more and more of who and what Jesus is and what God is doing in him. The seven signs are followed by Palm Sunday and John’s extended narrative of the Passion. The portion for today gives us the story of the second to last of the signs: the healing of the man born blind.

Elsewhere in this same Gospel, Jesus says, “I came not to judge the world.” But just a few moments ago, in today’s passage, we heard Jesus say, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” Well, which is it? “I came not to judge the world” or “I came into this world for judgment”?

This sort of paradox is very characteristic of John’s Gospel. In its paradoxical space, the idea of judgment is being redefined. We hear the word “judgment”—and we usually think about courts of criminal justice. Judicial sentence and punishment. But in John’s Gospel, judgment is the revelation of things as they are. Not so much juridical sentence passed down, but the shining of the Light. When the Light comes on, we see what’s there.

So judgment in John’s gospel is the revelation of things as they really are. At the personal, corporate, and planetary levels, this is a difficult thing to see. We try to avoid doing so.

Today we hear the whole ninth chapter of John. In many ways it’s the pivot of the whole Gospel: The revelatory showdown between the man born blind and the temple authorities.

This episode invites us to ponder what spiritual sight is and what spiritual blindness is. In this intersection of judgment—in which we are involved—we are also being given profound, deepest down renewal. Quite a scene. On one side, we have the temple authorities, the men—and they are men—of influence, of power, of advantage. They’re the ones in control; the ones who are used to telling everybody how it is and how it has to be. Quintessential big shots. Over against them, by himself until Jesus returns to the scene, we have someone from beyond the edge: a blind beggar of no standing, somebody who doesn’t count. This nobody says, “Well, in answer to all your questions: I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not. Here’s the one thing I do know. I was blind. Now I see.” In that “one thing,” the man born blind is knowing more than the rest of his antagonists all put together.

This is what I know. I was blind. Now I see.

This pivotal episode challenges our egoistic replacement for real sight—the replacement “vision” that we keep replaying before our minds’ eyes: the old image loops arising out of our protective fears and super-assurances. Flashing over and over, in captivity. This is the terrible crisis. This is itself, in the sense of John’s Gospel, judgment. Already self-pronounced, without our knowing it.

There was a movie of a few years ago, not a great movie, but still pretty good, I thought: The Sixth Sense. I’m sure some of us here saw it. It’s a psychological thriller. A young boy named Malcolm is bearing with a terrifying ability—and at long last as the story unfolds, he reveals what this ability is:

“I see dead people. They don’t know they’re dead. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see.”

Now that’s a pretty powerful description of spiritual blindness, isn’t it?

But the place of crises is where the renewal begins.

Seeing with a new vision, seeing beyond the capacities of our fear and our “super-assurance.” It seems so far beyond us. It’s like being born again, isn’t it? Once again, we come to one of the great themes of John’s gospel. Being born again. Not something that we wring out of our tired capacities. It’s a gift from above, from God.

On our part, we often first sense it in knowing we have need. (That knowledge is a major gift, in itself.) And we can be good seekers—persistent seekers—of all that will follow: Knowing that Christ has much to show us; knowing that the very capacity of sight comes from the Giver of Vision.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we come before you. We ask that you set us free from the captivities of our fears. Break apart the prison of our super-assurances. Release us from the illusions of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness. Help us, so that we may seek what you would reveal, so often in ways we don’t expect. You speak light at the beginning of creation. You speak light into our hearts. It is you who are the Light. Give us your Light, dear Lord, so that we may see. Amen.

Breathe On Us, Breath Of God

Year A, Second Sunday in Lent:  John 3:1-17                                                                            March 20, 2011                                                                                                                             The Rev. Adam S. Linton

“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”

“The wind blows where it chooses.”  This is one of my favorite phrases in all of Holy Scripture.

Our appreciation of it is made even more vivid when we recall that in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, the word for “spirit” and the word for “wind” are the very same.  The spirit blows where it chooses.  The wind blows where it wills.  Helpful for us to remember:  Last I heard, it was not possible to have a franchise on God.  It is not for us to predict or manipulate or control the ways of the Spirit.  It blows in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine.  But we have to admit to ourselves that as we see it, as we perceive it, the ways of the Spirit can often seem rather hit or miss.

Why do some seem to be touched by the Spirit’s working, and some not?  At different times, we can be either caught up in the wind—or passed by.  The same scripture verse that once resonated with power and energy later can leave us wondering, “What does this have to do with me?”

Pondering the wind/spirit connection, I thought of tornados, oddly enough.  A tornado is the most violent manifestation of wind’s force on the planet.  But if we look at the narrow path of a tornado’s destruction, there’s a great mystery to it.  One house, right in the middle of the path of destruction, reduced to splinters.  Another one, maybe two houses away, virtually untouched.

How come, at least as we see it, the Spirit touches some and not others?  How come that we ourselves feel both connection and alienation?  More mystery.  But we’re called to keep attentive, to keep moving forward (plodding along if we have to); through all the times when the Spirit is obvious and even when, to our perception, it’s not.

Today in the sermon, I’m going to invite us to focus on John 3:16, perhaps the single best known verse in the Bible.  In many motel or hotel rooms one can open up the drawer of the bedside table, and find one of those Gideon bibles.  At the very beginning of a Gideon bible, John 3:16 is printed out there in many different languages.  Sometimes when Lori and I are travelling I’ll open up the Gideon bible just in honor of those who worked to put it there, and I’ll look over John 3:16.

There are Christians from some traditions that will unroll a great big banner at a sports stadium, and on it one can see:

J N Period Three Colon Sixteen

For better or worse, we Episcopalians aren’t usually quite so exuberant, but it’s still a verse that’s close to our hearts.  I’m going to invite us to look at it closely today.  But to do that, first we have to back up two verses, to John 3:14.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

John 3:14 references what has to be on of the oddest passages in all the bible, from Numbers, chapter 21.  The people of Israel, after they’d been set free from their captivity in Egypt and after they’d received the law at Mount Sinai, have some work to do.  Forty years worth—before they enter the Promised Land.  It often doesn’t go so well.  They’re in one of their characteristic periods of grumbling and complaint.  So there’s some retribution coming.  The text of Numbers says that poisonous serpents enter the camp and afflict the people of Israel in a deadly way.  What Moses does—at God’s direction—is to cast a bronze sculpture of a serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up.  The people of look at it, and they’re healed.

What’s going on here?  A bit of idolatry that got past the warning system?  Maybe an ancient  example of homeopathic medicine?  Well, we’re not going to be able to sort it out today, except to note that it’s the background to John 3:14, and also that this very odd passage in Numbers was seen by earliest Christian writers as a prefiguring image of the Cross.  Jesus is lifted up on the Cross in his sacrificial death.  And those who in faith look to him there, lifted up for us, are healed.

Now, after that detour, let’s take a look at John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Let’s take a look at it, piece by piece.

“God”

That’s where we begin.  In our theological language, we would do well to make God the subject of more sentences than we do, and God is certainly the subject of this sentence.

What do we mean when we say the word “God”?  That’s a very practical problem.  We have to admit that sometimes even the most cherished vocabulary of faith gets compromised.  It has to be cleansed and sorted out and reengaged.  What do we mean when we say the word God?  The one who made us—the source of our being.  The one who is closer to us than our own hearts.  The one who is our life, our health, our peace, ultimate beauty and goodness and truth.  The one before whom we always give ultimate account.  God.

“For God so loved.”

Greek has a few more words for love than we do in English.  In English, the word “love” carries a lot of freight:  from “I love that green bean casserole,” all the way to “I love you,” said to our life partner.  We also have to acknowledge that much of what goes on in the name of “love” in this broken human life of ours can be possessive, manipulative—very proprietary.  God’s love is not like that.  God doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?”  God’s love is perfectly other directed.  God loves us not because we have something that we can help God out with; not because we’ve made a deal—but because Love loves.

“For God so loved the world.”

This world, the one you and I live in.  Messed up—hurting and hurtful and broken.  Including us.

I want to pause for a bit before we go on.  “For God so loved the world.”  How do we understand a God who “loves the world” in the aftermath of earthquakes and tsunamis?  How do we think about a world which God “loves” in the ongoing cycle of strife and war and bloodshed?

Well, we’re certainly not going to get it tacked down.  We have to acknowledge the reality of suffering:  questions that we can’t answer and have no business trying to answer.  Sometimes things are terrible.  We acknowledge that honestly, but also affirm in mystery and paradox that God does love this world as we are.  Although God has great intentions for us that we can barely begin to comprehend, God doesn’t merely love us as raw material.  God loves us here and now—with all the brokenness and the joys, the consolations and the sufferings that we bring with us this morning, right where we are.  And that’s true for the whole creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave.”

Gave.  The word just slips past our lips, and in spite of all the license that seems so characteristic of our human life, we forget the concept of grace.  God gives.  God gives utterly in generosity.  It’s not a deal that we have to match ourselves up to.  We’re never going to merit it.  God gives what God gives purely out of generosity to the unworthy and the undeserving, and yes, that means he’s talking about us.  What does God give?

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

Jesus, the eternal word made flesh.  Jesus fully one of us, but not only one of us.  Jesus, the Great Teacher, indeed, but much more than only a teacher.  In this Jesus, we meet the eternal God made flesh.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone.”

Everyone.  Once again, over against all notions of spiritual franchise, when we hear the word “everyone,” I think we’re invited to ask ourselves the question, “What part of ‘everyone’ do we not yet understand?”

“So that everyone who believes in him.”

Belief in the deepest Christian sense is not to be reduced to “I give my intellectual assent to this series of facts.”  Belief in the biblical sense means to cherish and to trust.  We’re going to walk with this Jesus whom we cherish—that we get to know as not only trustworthy, but ultimate trustworthiness.  And specifically, going back to that odd citation two verses before:  We believe, we trust, we cherish the Christ who was lifted up on the cross, whose death—in ways we can’t possibly perfectly understand—is God’s perfect provision for us and for our salvation.

“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish.”

The world we now see is a perishing world.  But there’s much more to reality than what we now can perceive.  What we see is not what we get, thanks be.  God has more in store.  And what God has in store is broader and deeper and higher than we can possibly imagine.

“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Eternal life.  Yes of course, that means life bigger than this present life.  It means life beyond the threshold of mortality.  Of course, it means that.  But it doesn’t mean the good stuff is always after, away—and never here.  The eternal life that Jesus is talking about, the eternal life that Jesus is giving, is bigger than the present life.  It flows beyond the present life—but it starts here and now.  Here and now—through the wonderful gift of God in Christ, we enter the eternal kind of life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

Now the ways of the Spirit—the Breath—of God, can often seem to us to be “hit or miss.”  We hear the words of John 3:16.  Maybe we feel touched; maybe not.  Maybe we’re excited by them, maybe not.  Whatever it is, we keep going forward, step by step, paying attention.

Lent is a season meant to foster our attentiveness.  And if we feel—if we fear—that we’re one of those that the Spirit has missed, we need to be patient with ourselves and with that same Spirit.  Our sense of lack could be, itself, a very good sign.  Because the quiet Breath of God—often so quiet, so incremental, so barely noticeable; that quiet Spirit is more powerful than the most violent storm on earth.

“Breathe on us, Breath of God.”  Amen.

The Game Is Up

The First Sunday of Lent, Year B, 1 Peter 3:18-22
March 1, 2009

The passage from First Peter, today’s second Lesson, is one of the most baffling, debated texts in all the New Testament. This explains, in part, why I am drawn to preach on it! Additionally, I think that all-too-often in our preaching we find an unhelpful, unhealthy neglect of the Epistles— admittedly challenging more often than not, but also containing much that we really are meant to hear and to ponder.

Karl Barth, the great twentieth century Swiss Reformed theologian wrote: the “most debatable and least assimilable parts” of Scripture are “more important than the best and most necessary things that we ourselves have said or can say.” (Church Dogmatics, I.III.21) One doesn’t have to deny the place of tradition and reason in the church’s life—one by no means has to buy into fundamentalism or literalism—to appreciate how profound that statement is.

Gladly for us, the obscurities of today’s passage have to do, for the most part, with its supporting references. The “big picture” is fairly clear, if we don’t miss the forest for all the unusual trees. Not that the trees aren’t appropriate to notice in context. Not at all. We couldn’t not notice if we tried.

So, I’d ask you to bear with me as we undertake a bit of a trek through some spiritual old-growth timber. Such places are seldom fully comfortable for us—but still worth the journey.

To be sure, our passage from First Peter meanders. It’s filled almost beyond capacity with explicitly metaphoric language—especially that of the Ascension. In spite of the smug dismissiveness of some contemporary writers (“Well, we now know that Jesus couldn’t have blasted off the surface of the earth like a rocket.”), serious Christian theology has always been aware, full well, that the Ascension was not a matter of Jesus simply going “up.”

Engaging with Christ’s Ascension into the “Heavenlies”—indeed all our possible engagement with the interplay of Heaven and Earth—puts us at the very frontier of our present capacities, not only of description, but also of experience. The crude pictures make of Heaven something only “Up, Up, and Away.” Real reflection makes clear, however, that Heaven and Earth, whatever their distinction, are interlocking realities—existing in relationship with one another. That we now usually barely sense this does not make it not so. And our spiritual pilgrimage is often involved, isn’t it?, with the expansion of our sensibilities. Keeping this in mind may help us appreciate why we’re given to hear a Scripture with such a theme on this First Sunday of Lent—instead of waiting until forty days after Easter.

Now, focusing specifically on our text, the First Letter of Peter, the Third Chapter, verse eighteen and following: As a summary of faith—perhaps as a sort of “proto-Creed”—it makes four pithy statements about Christ. It’s a series that almost feels like (and perhaps even was) a set liturgical proclamation. Perhaps something along the lines of the Acclamation, after the Words of Institution, in our Great Thanksgiving:

Christ has died;

Christ is risen;

Christ will come again.

Here it is, as we heard it, around which the text of First Peter expands:

He was put to death in the flesh,

Made alive in the spirit,

Made proclamation, [and]

Has gone into heaven.

The “direction,” so to speak, is indeed one of ascension—Christ’s Ascension. We’re not there yet.

But this Ascension has everything to do with us—and much to say to us. Specifically, what it has to do and what it has to say very much apply to our present sufferings—that adversarial environment in which we find ourselves, which still is for us, always, at least to some extent, an inescapable context.

Now, to address the reading’s most unusual reference: Who are those “spirits in prison” to whom the Risen Christ makes his proclamation—and what is the content of that proclamation? Scholars and interpreters have struggled with these questions for a long time. It’s unlikely that we will settle them once for all today. However, increased awareness of Jewish devotional literature in the times around Jesus does give us, I think, a fairly reliable take. It’s most likely that First Peter is connecting with the imagery of Jewish apocalyptic literature of its time. That Peter engages this imagery to convey his message does not require that we ascribe to that referenced imagery some sort of literal, geographic facticity. That’s not the point here.

The picture from which Peter is likely drawing is rather like this: Above the earth there were a number of heavens in succession; “layers” of heaven, as it were. In one of these lower heavens (but still above us), rebellious spirits were being held in some sort of limited confinement; contained—to some extent—if not yet entirely suppressed. We might think of this as a “house arrest” pending imposition of final sentence. Those so partially contained were the spirits of destruction which set themselves against creation—especially humankind—and against God’s purpose for us and the rest of the world. An example of their activity was found in the degradation and corruption loosed upon the world in the days leading up to Noah and the flood. Yet even in the midst of those floodwaters of judgment, God curtailed corruption’s terrible consequence, making provision in the ark for survival.

Peter references all this imagery to affirm that—really, truly, concretely—what God has done now is so much greater than that past’s limited provision. Christ now has met us in the midst of the very waters of mortality, into which—with us—he was submerged. And in that deathly submersion he is for us the passage to Life! That’s the reality to which Baptism joins us. We’re not speaking, here of magical or mechanical understandings. Not as magic or mechanism, Baptism is the saving instrument God has appointed in his binding us to what he has done in Christ. So we now, as the Baptized People, share in Christ’s being made alive—past the weight of judgment, so justly accrued to us—past the waters of death.

We share in his being made alive;

We are set free in his proclamation;

Our hope is gathered with him in his heavenly glory.

Speaking of Christ’s “proclamation”: What was said to those imprisoned spirits still working injury?

What did the Risen Christ say to them in his Ascension Procession? Using our spiritual imagination, perhaps something like this: “You too, like all others, all else in the universe, must now submit to my Sovereignty! For a time, you still make your trouble; harass, afflict. But know this: The game is up! Your doom is sure—and over my elect and my earth, your false lordship is stripped.”

Our hope “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” (3:22) That hope is as sure as sure gets. And yet; we are also surely now living “in between.” We aren’t all the way “there” yet. A substantial part of our life-reality is still very much “down here,” isn’t it? Here and now—around us, within us—we still know that adversarial, alienating, injurious stuff all-too-well. We are growing into our ascended-with-Christ true identity, so gradually, so incrementally. And we still have yet to cross the frontier of mortality.

Frankly, it can seem like too great a burden; disturbing, frustrating, colossally inefficient. To say the least, it is often hard to see the purpose for having to do things this way. God must have God’s reasons, somehow.

It’s quite a spiritual combination, isn’t it?, this present in-between “deal” in which we live. Lent is one of the best schools I can think of for learning how to navigate the deal. Lent certainly can underscore for us our present complexities—how far we have yet to go in the journey. But more to the point, Lent can help us toward a refreshed awareness of the accomplished, active Lordship of Christ—who has bound himself to us and us to himself; who has prevailed—prevailed decisively, and for good.

For a while yet we’ll deal with the stuff: waste, injury, frailty, failure to love. Sometimes we will find ourselves discouraged, delayed, knocked off balance. If all we were looking for is immediate painrelief—the satisfaction of our short term senses of “fair,” that would be it. But that isn’t “it,” thanks be. In between the “once for all” and the bit by bit, God in Christ is making all things new—including us.

In some troublesome, maybe even heartbreaking encounter with the “stuff” we may now say: “OK; ‘it’ may have carried this round—but Christ has already won the fight. Jesus has already proclaimed—sufficiently, efficaciously proclaimed to all of it—all that corrupt and corrupting stuff: “Your game is up! Your ‘lordship,’ expired!” So we are free. Never again to we have to live as marks for the con. We are set free to live, to love, and to serve—even here; even now.

We would well wonder: Why has all this been done for us? To answer that, as we conclude, I would highlight the first verse of today’s passage—perhaps in our practical spirituality, the most important that we take home with us: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (3:18) “The righteous for the unrighteous.”

So; Why? Sheer love; utter gift, from first to last! So it pleased, and pleases, our gracious God. If Lent—maybe even this Lent—helps us remember this more fully, appreciate it in some incrementally more perfect measure—that will be enough.