Archives for January 2010

Infusing our lives with agape, 4 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 31, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

The only problem with these beautiful words is that they don’t ring true. “Love never fails.” Didn’t St. Paul have the foresight to know that this reading would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony? Yet in America today, some reports indicate that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails about half the time?

A quick look at the Greek text of this passage shows that Paul writes using the word agape. Agape is one of the three Greek words for love used in the New Testament. There is eros or “erotic love,” and phileo or “brotherly love.” Finally there is agape, a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love God has for us. It is this agape that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is this self-giving agape love of God that never fails.

Paul calls agape love a “still more excellent way.” To set love in an extreme example, Paul writes that if he understands all mysteries and has faith so as to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing. If he were to give away everything he owns and hands over even his very life, but has not agape love, then he is nothing.

So what is the difference between this godly love that never fails and the kind of love that results in half of all marriages ending in divorce? The difference is that love that starts with us and goes out to another person is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “me.” Yet, if I change and you change, this feeling of love will likely go away. I’ll wake up and realize that the feeling I had has gone away and may never return. At that point, I can either give up on love and stick with a loveless marriage, or I can give up on you and seek love elsewhere. Neither of these options are suggested by scripture.

Paul tells us of a still more excellent way. We can infuse our lives with agape, the love that is God’s love for us. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not conditional. God’s love for your spouse is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your children does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than we are, even on our best days.

At this point a detour is needed to clear up one possible point of confusion. This is not to say that someone who is suffering abuse needs to stay in the abusive situation. The Trinity’s love for creation is not an excuse for tolerating an abusive relationship. Staying in a home where you never know if tonight will be a good night or one of the nights when your spouse hits you or the kids is not love. In physically and emotionally abusive situations, true love for a spouse will mean you remove yourself from harm. Love your spouse enough not to allow the situation to continue.

Real love can mean not becoming co-dependent and supporting someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs, legal or illegal. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love that is more concerned for the other can be lived into in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is a part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours – and that loves continues, even though we are fallen and not deserving of it.

This love that was in the very life of God before creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, as they mocked him, and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. When God became flesh in the person of Jesus and lived among us, it was possible that no one would return that love. The incarnation – God’s becoming human – is when God risked everything for love. With real love, there is no force or coercion. There is always the possibility in love that the love will not be returned.

God came and lived among us in Jesus, and when the cost of that love was a brutal death, Jesus still did not give up on that love. Jesus could have come, lived among us, died for that love, and no one could have noticed or cared. This precarious act of loving, even though it may well not be returned, is part of the agape love of God.

God’s love is being more concerned about the other than about your own self, but it is not about self-loathing or being abused. Agape love is more than a feeling. Agape love is a decision, an act of will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love.

Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with. Seeing another person as God sees them is not always easy, but when we get it right, this love will never fail. This agape love is a gift from God, which is the still more excellent way.

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia. He is the vicar of King of Peace, Kingsland, which is on track to become a parish in February 2010.

The surprise behind the door, 3 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 24, 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

A few years back, the Thompsons were invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with their oldest daughter. To commemorate the couple’s ruby anniversary, their daughter had invited them to a lovely country club for dinner. When they arrived and opened the big double doors to what they assumed to be the dining room …

Surprise!

Over 200 of their friends and family members were gathered in the grand ballroom to celebrate the occasion with them. There were guests from near and far, marking the many blessings and periods of their lives – brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, high-school friends, college roommates, colleagues, children, and grandchildren. The evening was filled with stories, toasts, and there was a tremendous outpouring of love. It was a wonderful, love-filled, and unexpected surprise.

Sometimes we encounter God in the most unexpected and surprising ways. Holy scripture is filled with such stories. In the Book of Genesis there is the story of Jacob, whose lies won him the unintentional blessing of his father at the expense of his brother. Jacob is surprised to discover God’s presence through a dream of ladders. Then there’s Abraham and Sarah, who laughed upon hearing God’s intentions for the late-in-life blessing about to be bestowed on them, only to be surprised by the outcome. And Paul, a Pharisee intent on persecuting those who followed Jesus, encountered the risen Christ in a surprise encounter on the road to Damascus and was converted. Holy Scripture is filled with stories that tell of the surprising ways of God.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday contain several messages about surprises. In this morning’s letter from Paul to the Corinthians, we hear the familiar metaphor of the human body for the body of Christ, the Church.

J. Ted Blakely, in “A Lector’s Guide and Commentary,” explains the context of this passage from First Corinthians. He writes:

“Paul is speaking to Christians who consider certain spiritual gifts to be greater than others, with the result that those who exercise the so-called greater gifts are afforded greater honor, prestige and privilege than those who exercise the so-called lesser gifts.”

Paul’s implication is that in the Body of Christ, all people with their varied spiritual gifts are equally valuable.

Several years ago there was a recently widowed woman who was very grateful to the church and pastor who had held the burial service for her late husband. She went to see the pastor and expressed her desire to give back, but told him that her finances and, by her own estimation, her abilities were limited. They spoke about her late husband’s service, and in the process, she shared how challenging it was for her to host and coordinate the meal that followed the service at her home.

The two then hit upon an idea. What if the church was to coordinate, and prepare when necessary, a meal in the church hall following burial services? Today, as a result of this conversation several years ago, that congregation has a new church hall, a state-of-the art kitchen, and an entire team of people – mostly widowed – who volunteer their time to provide meals following burials and funerals, both for the church community and for the wider community. It is a financially self-supporting ministry that has helped many during a time of great need. The founding member was surprised at the result, as she never dreamed that God could have used her gift of hospitality in that way.

We are the body of Christ, each of us with a different, sometimes not readily apparent spiritual gift to give. It is essential that we remain open to God’s ability to shape us in surprising ways throughout our lives, for the good of God’s Kingdom. Each and every one of us has a gift to give, and we mustn’t let fear, modesty, or doubt stand in the way. And it is important that we look for, affirm, and encourage the gifts we see in others. After all, we are all part of Christ’s body.

Today’s gospel reading also contains a message about surprise. In this reading we hear the story of Jesus, returning to the place where he was raised. He enters the synagogue, and begins reading from the scroll:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The eyes of all are upon him as rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and begins to teach. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This story continues with Jesus’ teaching, and the listener’s eventual angry response.

William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, explains that what must have angered those in the synagogue was that here was “this young Jesus, who they all knew, preaching as if the gentiles were specially favored by God. It was beginning to dawn on them that there were things in this new message the like of which they had never dreamed.”

For us, today’s listeners, this gospel reading holds a message about remaining open to the word of God, and how surprising it may be. We can remain open by reading a passage from holy scripture every day. Even if we have read a passage many times before, it is amazing upon re-reading it how it can appear to have a new message for us, or how we can see something that we have never seen before.

We can also read from and pray with “Forward Day by Day,” the free quarterly devotional journal offered by Forward Movement Publications, which allows us to hear the voices, interpretations, and reflections of a variety of contributors – new voices that might offer surprising interpretations that challenges us to grow in our Christian faith.

And we can remain open by attending church services and Bible studies with ears and hearts that are ready to listen and learn. Remembering that we are formed as Christians throughout our lives, and being active in the process, can help us to grow in and remain open to the word of God.

God surprised Jacob, Abraham and Sarah, and Paul. And God surprises us. During this season of Epiphany, the season when we commemorate the three gentile magi’s surprising recognition of Jesus as King of the Jews, let us hold fast to the hope of God’s ability to surprise us in our lives. Few people will journey through life without learning the painful lesson that life can change very quickly in sometimes devastating ways. This Epiphany, let us hold fast to the Christian hope that life can also change in magnificently transformative and wonderful ways just as quickly.

God can change our lives through using our gifts in ways we might not imagine. God can change our lives by opening us to new understandings through holy scripture. And God can change our lives in ways that we might not even be able to imagine at this moment.

So, like the Thompsons, who opened the door expecting to find a restaurant of strangers but discovered over 200 friends and family gathered in love, this Epiphany let us greet each day with the hopeful and Christian expectation that God is ready to bring about new and surprising developments in our life for the good of the Kingdom. It is time to open that door.

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small church ministries. She has also served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Seeking unbreakable connections, 2 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 17, 2010

Isaiah 62:1-2; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

In seeking to discover the value of today’s gospel, anyone fortunate enough to have attended a wedding in a small, rural community has a leg up on those who have not. At such rituals, sometimes paralleled in ethnic urban environments, one finds that the power of the liturgical meaning of the actual wedding is underscored by an exuberant celebration that follows.

After the commitment of vows, day-long events continue the celebration. This involves nearly everyone in the community, is replete with beverages including those of the adult-only variety, lots of food, dancing, and other kinds of merry-making for all ages – an extended family doing what they do best.

Surely such weddings reflect conditions in Biblical times, the kind of weddings Jesus attended, including the one at Cana of Galilee. A whole village, a days-long celebration, lots of food and dancing and storytelling and reminiscing – and much wine to drink.

But what must have begun as an ordinary wedding at Cana resulted in anything but an ordinary action. We heard today an account of Jesus’ earliest miracle. St. John calls it a sign. That makes this a perfect lesson for Epiphany, because it manifests, shows forth, what God is for us. The reason for John’s telling the story is not to make a big deal about a miracle, but to point to the reality of who Jesus was and who we can be as a result.

All of John’s stories about Jesus point beyond themselves to reveal the character and nature of God. John used the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee to reveal something much deeper and broader than any simple miracle could ever convey. In the midst of an ordinary celebration, Jesus did something so remarkable that we are forced to think about who we are and who God is – forced to reflect on the mysteries of Christ and reexamine our lives, digging deep into our souls to discover what God wants for us and from us.

We can’t miss the obvious fact that this is a miracle about abundance and extravagance. We hear about an enormous amount of wine – twenty to thirty gallons per jar for six jars – way too much and by any standard extravagant. A clear example of the grace God bestows on us, in such abundance, beyond anything we should ever expect or could ever deserve. It’s a message that God wants us to celebrate life, to enjoy the company of one another as companions engaged in this great adventure called life.

This is also obviously a miracle of transformation and new possibilities. In Cana, Jesus made it possible for the wine of celebration to continue flowing. This reminds us of a central symbol of our faith: Jesus providing for us the wine of a whole new creation that continues to sustain us. Recounting the story of Jesus changing water into wine was John’s way of showing that he had come to do nothing less than transform the common into the holy.

In Christ we learn about the power of God to:

• transform the incomplete into the whole
• transform the weaker into the stronger
• transform the ordinary into the precious
• transform the despised into the beloved
• transform the tasteless into that which give joy to the heart
• transform what we are into what we can become

How well this transformation takes place depends on our connectedness with God. And that connectedness depends on our connectedness with Jesus, in whom we see the human face of God.

The unity between Christ and human kind has been explained in scripture through the example of marriage. In today’s Old Testament lesson, for example, we heard the prophet Isaiah use the wedding metaphor to describe God’s redemption of Israel. In this passage the prophet refers to a time when Jews would return to Jerusalem after the exile, the eventual creation of a new Jerusalem from the one that had been destroyed.

Isaiah encouraged the people with stirring words:

“You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.”

In the New Testament, wedding metaphors are used to exemplify the relationship of God with the people of God. We are encouraged to better understand our relationship with the unseen God by examining the nature of love between two people in an ideal marriage. In this way, we can better know the love that God intends for a relationship with us – the very children of God.

We are bid to examine the best kind of love in marriage and see the giving away of self, in extravagance like the abundance of wine at Cana, as a something that can lead to new possibilities – that can produce in each of us a genuine transformation from the tendency toward human selfishness into gracious, loving Christ-like-ness.

Today’s gospel story about a miracle at a wedding celebration can help lead us to a renewed life in Christ. We can better learn how to share the unlimited gifts God offers us. We can better learn how to celebrate the joys of human community and the union we can have with God, one that will sustain us through our journeys of faith.

May it be our prayer today that Christ will more closely unite not only with the whole church but specifically with each congregation and each individual. In such a prayer we will seek an unbreakable connection of mutual love – love that not only will show us clearly what God is like but also will lead us to the fullness of Christ. We will seek in our hearts and souls to enter into the new, abundant life of our Lord Christ.

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

A call that cannot be denied, 1 Epiphany (C) – 2010

January 10, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” These lovely works by poet John Masefield talk about the sailor’s almost irresistible draw to the water.

It’s been said that since our bodies may be up to 75 percent water, we are automatically drawn to water. We know certainly that the body cannot exist without water – picture the old cowboy movies where the pioneers in covered wagons are overcome with heat and exhaustion in the desert, no oasis in sight, a burning sun scorching the sand. Whitened bones of humans and animals, wagons with rotted canvas coverings flapping in the wind are soon all that’s left. No flowing streams, no rain, no hope for those caught unprepared in the desert. It’s as if heat and drought themselves yearn for water and so pull the water of life out of living things until bones collapse and blanch on the desert floor.

“I must go down to the sea again.”

Our hearts ache for the touch of water on our dry skin when we consider the desert. But then we imagine other movies, “The Perfect Storm” or “Moby Dick.” We remember the desperation and horror of those caught in real-life tsunamis. Plenty of water there. More than plenty – too much. Instead of being life-giving, the water brings death. The sea, the blue-green and tranquil sea that painters love to capture on a beautiful summer’s day, becomes an enormous force, bigger than life, dangerous, frightening. It becomes black with fury, tossing ships like toys, overwhelming miles of landscape and claiming to its black depths lives, villages, and a future’s hope.

Water – life and death, hope and despair. In a way, we have absolutely no control over water; some pray for rain, others pray for the rain to stop. Water, like the air we breathe, is completely essential, and yet it brings death as well as life. Perhaps it’s those properties of water that make it such a perfect symbol of the grace of baptism.

Water is one of the most evident features in scripture. From the graceful beginning words of Genesis where the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, through the story of Noah and the covenant between God and God’s people, to the Red Sea, and then to today’s anointing of Jesus’ ministry through his own baptism, water has woven the story of God’s life and ours together.

Baptismal water flows over us today. In our passage from Isaiah, we’re reminded that even as we pass through raging waters, God is with us. Overflowing rivers will not drown God’s people. And why? Because the word of the Lord through Isaiah says, “Fear not: for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine.” Of course water here is an image. Earthly water and fire – another image in today’s passage – can do us bodily harm, but when we dig deeper and hear what God is saying, we realize that God is reminding us that no earthly thing can keep us from the love and comfort of God. Even if natural water or fire overwhelms our bodies, God’s spirit is with us. God’s love comforts and heals.

In the gospel, water is used both figuratively and literally. John the Baptist offers the people of that time a baptism of repentance. The Jews are drawn to the waters of the Jordan to be cleansed of their unfaithfulness to God’s law. They are drawn by John’s words. Many may be drawn by the simplicity of his message. This is how you can live lives faithful to God’s law: tax collectors, don’t cheat; soldiers, don’t threaten or extort; all of you, share what you have with the poor. John offered them a chance to be renewed. And this was a very good thing. The Jordan’s water cleansed both body and soul.

It seems sensible that some would mistake John for the Messiah, but John introduces Jesus by using the two images we heard in Isaiah: water and fire. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is a new baptism. This new baptism will do more than forgive sins, it will create the community of God. This community would be guided by the Holy Spirit. This baptism announced that the kingdom of God was at hand. As the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God anointed the mission and ministry Jesus would live out among God’s people. God has pitched a tent among the people.

This isn’t just an historical telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry. This message is for us, too. But you might say, we know this story. We know it’s important to be baptized. We even baptize babies, not only adults, as they did in the early church.

But do we really know? Do we really take our baptisms seriously today? We certainly still take water seriously, its ability to effect both life and death, but if we really took our baptism seriously, wouldn’t our world and our church look different? Think about those promises we all made at our baptism. We promised to keep alive the apostles’ teachings and the prayers. We promised, as those people did at the Jordan, to acknowledge our sins, repent, and return to the Lord. We promised to see Christ in each other and to respect the dignity of every human being. We promised to work for justice and peace. We didn’t promise just to think all these things would be nice. We promised to do something about them – to work for them. Are we? From the look of the world and the church, we must not be doing too good a job.

This is why we have a lectionary cycle. This is why the church asks us to consider the story of our salvation, and everything that entails, over three years’ of readings. It helps us to look at all God has done for us. It helps us to remember that no matter what, God cares deeply for us and promises to be our strength. Hearing again and again the story of John and Jesus at the Jordan should cement in our minds that we must keep the mission and ministry of Jesus alive. We are asked to pray. We are asked to keep Jesus’ teaching alive by sharing in the liturgy, preaching God’s word, and then taking what we have learned out to others.

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;”

Our call to keep alive the good news of the gospel and to spread the love and compassion of God cannot be denied.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of “Tuesday Morning,” a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

Embracing the mission, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2010

January 6, 2010

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The plot is familiar. It could well be a contemporary tale. We meet a grasping dictator, determined to hang on to power at all costs, paranoid and bloodthirsty.

We meet determined seekers after truth, who although without “power” in the normal sense, are possessed with faith and adventure to seek and to find.

We meet innocent, humble people caught up in events they cannot control, their lives and futures imperiled by politics and ambition.

In the midst of a story, which could have come to us on CNN today, we meet God, not in power and might, but in vulnerability and peril. Perhaps this is the image that gives us the most problem.

If we are to pass on a message, get enthused by that message to the point that we break out of our Episcopalian reserve, we want that message to be powerful. We are a “get things done” culture. We just can’t stand weakness. We worship success. Even our sermons must work!

The wise men followed a star, braving Herod’s wrath, to find the coming King. What we don’t know is what they said about Jesus when, avoiding Herod, they went home. The end of their search was a young mother, with a young helpless child. How inappropriate their gifts to the child must have seemed, offered not as they must have assumed to a King’s son, or a High Priest’s child, but to someone who seemed very ordinary in a time when rank and class were definitive.

And so it is with us so often. When our faith seems to fail, when our expectations of Jesus or his Church are disappointed, we go our way, silent about the king/priest/savior – or grumbling at his lack of power.

Herod killed the young babies in his murderous paranoia. Why didn’t God use his power to stop that massacre? Daring not only to seek, but to find and to proclaim a vulnerable Savior, a vulnerable God, whose life gifts, the riches of gold, the sweet savor of incense are defined in the deadly ointment of myrrh, is indeed a step of courage.

Yet if Epiphany is a season of evangelism, of Good News telling, it is all about daring to have faith in a vulnerable Jesus who shares our grief, our torment, our sufferings, and redeems life not by power or magical intervention, but by bearing our lot even through death.

The early church defied the Roman Emperor, asserting that his claim to universal power was bogus. Jesus is Lord! By the odd power of word and deed, they overcame all the power and might of the greatest empire the world had known. “See these are they who turn the world upside down,” it was said of the first Christians, few of whom came from privileged or powerful backgrounds.

The Christ child defies tyrants, bullies, those who use wealth, prestige, class, national chauvinism, with the eternal power of his gentle love. We too are to brave and defy worldly power as we seek Jesus, following our stars. When we find him, we are called with great joy to “Go tell” the Good News that God is King, and in his good time, His will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

May we today consecrate ourselves anew to the work of the church, the church in this place. God’s plan for the world, and God’s plan for each one of us challenges the sort of power boasted of by “rulers and authorities.” It is our task to issue the challenge. We can do no better than embrace the mission described by St. Paul when he wrote:

“Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

 

— Father Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Ind., in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

The terror by the name of Herod, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus was born at a time that held little to no regard for human life. Emperors and kings reigned supreme, considering themselves equal to gods. They held the power to kill, and there was no one to hold them accountable. We like to think that eventually Christianity changed all that for many parts of the Western world, but eventually human nature succumbed to its pre-Christian idolatry – the divine right of kings comes to mind. Thanks be to God that this idolatry has been extinguished in almost all parts of the world.

Today, however, we are thinking again of that old terror by the name of Herod. There were several Herods in history, but two are mentioned in these passages – the one who is known as Great and his son Archelaus, who succeeded him. Herod was indeed “great” in military successes and in knowing how to placate and bribe the Romans who held power over the world they had conquered. He built cities and magnificent edifices; he married 10 wives, had many children and suffered immeasurably as a result of so many conflicting desires and machinations for his throne. He was named “King of the Jews” by Octavius, who later came to be known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. There were so many internecine killings in Herod’s family, almost all of them related to his fear of losing his throne, that it is not doubtful that he was also a man capable of ordering the slaughter of innocent children. He may have been called King of the Jews, but Herod was not burdened by any of the religious commandments of the Jewish God. He was much more like a Roman emperor than a Jewish king in the tradition of David. And the Jews never quite accepted him as one of their own, since he was an Idumean.

It is true that there is no historical corroboration of the flight to Egypt, but that does not keep the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, from being utterly convinced of its truth, specifying numerous places as giving shelter to the holy family and being convinced of their length of stay in the country. We must remember that the evangelists did not have the same concept of history that we have today. Do these stories matter? Of course they do.

Look at the history of the Herods and compare them to the stories of Jesus – the child born to a poor young mother who said yes to God; the child protected by a good man named Joseph who obeyed the words of the messengers of God. Who made a difference in subsequent history and in the hearts of human beings? Who is remembered with love and devotion? Who is worshiped and obeyed? And whose life and death changed the world? Think about Herod and then think about Jesus of Nazareth. Whose kingdom do you prefer?

One bribes the Romans with money taken from the taxes of the poor people of Judea in order to curry favor with the conquerors and hold on to his throne. The other urges his followers to give what they have to the poor while he himself lives as one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Herod uses violence that brings forth more violence; Jesus resists violence by offering peace and forgiveness.

Herod builds palaces and temples to his own glory while Jesus builds the kingdom of God by turning the values of power and wealth upside down.

One lives by injustice, the other by justice.

Herod orders death while Jesus offers life.

Who is the one we long to emulate?

The story of the flight to Egypt, of a poor couple and an infant escaping to another land, has given hope to millions of refugees the world over. It is possible that thousands of refugees have been given asylum and been resettled by churches because of the memory of the One who started his life as a refugee.

Historians, both Christian and secular, try to denigrate these stories of the infancy and childhood of Jesus as written by Matthew and Luke by calling them “legends.” The first answer to this is that the evangelists were not writing history but were telling a story of faith. The second answer is a kind a comparison that may help us put things in perspective. In 31 B.C., a great battle took place at Actium, a Greek port city. Antony and Cleopatra, great and famous personages of their time, were defeated soundly by Octavius, who became the all-powerful Roman emperor, Augustus. This is documented in history. Nearly three decades later a son was born to Mary in Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee. In the eyes of the contemporary world, Octavius/Augustus was all-important, a self-proclaimed son of god. Yet none of his acts proved to be godly.

In the eyes of the same world, Jesus was unknown and ignored; yet his followers came to be convinced that he, indeed, was God’s Son. His life and death testified to the love, justice, and mercy of God.

On this day we remember only Jesus of Nazareth with gratitude and praise. Thanks be to God.
— Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of “Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross” and other books of biblical storytelling.

Sharing the name ‘Christian’, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2010

January 1, 2010

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Abraham means “Ancestor of many.”

Moses means “to draw out.”

Israel means either “he struggles with God” or “God struggles.”

So, if our etymological skills are keen enough, at least from an Old Testament point of view, we can figure out the purpose of a particular patriarch or matriarch simply by reading his or her name. Of course, Abraham did indeed become the father of many. Moses, after some trials and tribulations, did draw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of promise. And Israel, Jacob’s other name, given to him as he wrestled with God at Peniel, was the moniker that would be indicative of all of his descendants’ relationship with God for generations upon generations.

So with all of this said, it is safe to say names mean much more than simply that by which one is called. Names mean not only who you are, but often what you do. Our identities have as much to do with what we do as they have to do with what we are called. Smith, Cartwright, Brewer, or Cooper – all fine last names – have their roots in professions. Long ago, individuals who worked at these professions came to be so closely associated with them that what they did defined who they were – literally.

Identity means character, uniqueness, and individuality. And in our society, much of who we are and how we are perceived hasn’t changed all that much from antiquity. Upon meeting someone for the first time we inevitably ask and answer the all-important “So, what do you do?” It is a means by which we convey to others our identity. In short, where we spend the majority of our time and energy defines who we are as human beings. Who knows? Someday before too long someone may have the last name of Processor or Byte.

If biblical names are so important in describing what purposes these august individuals served, then the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus certainly has a place in the Church’s calendar. We heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus was given “the name above all names.” And Jesus’ name means, “He saves.” It is, of course, a rendition of the Hebrew name Joshua. And if names impart identity, then Jesus’ identity is living into the fullness of his name – animating it and turning a concept like salvation into a living, breathing human being.

Mary and Joseph knew none of this as they stood with him all wrapped in swaddling clothes at the Temple, obediently presenting their first-born child for the rite of circumcision. They didn’t know what would happen thirty-some-odd years later. They had no way of knowing how their son, born in such obscurity, would live into his name. How he would be the one upon whose shoulders all hopes had been placed for millennia. All they knew was what the angel Gabriel told them, that the child would be called Jesus.

Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. And although there are vastly different approaches to Christology, most scholars agree that to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” we must first answer a foundational question: “What does Jesus do?”

Identity and purpose take on even more complex meanings when we delve into the second person of the Trinity. And as scripture tells us, it is precisely because of Jesus that God is revealed in God’s fullest. The uniqueness of the en-fleshment of God is to reveal God’s identity in a way never before seen prior to the incarnation.

The epistle to the Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” is to engage the divine on a human, and therefore unique, level. To know Jesus’ name is to know something about God. And the thing we discover is that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Through Jesus, God brought to fulfillment God’s promises of atonement or “at-one-ment” of humanity with God’s self. Through Jesus, God pioneered a pathway to the very gates of heaven that heretofore had been unassailable by humankind.

So celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is about so much more than a ritual observed in a temple 2,000 years ago by a devout Jewish family. For we realize that in Jesus, we live vicariously through his victory over sin and death. It is not just a belief system. It is not just a way of life. It is a very change in our identities.

It all begins with a simple but powerful statement. You remember: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked and Christ’s own forever.”

With that, we are given the grace to share in Jesus Christ’s victory. We are given the grace of a whole new life. We are given the grace to be called children of God, who all share the same name: Christian.
— The Rev. Scott Baker is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Va.