Study of the “Last Things” – Proper 27(C)

[RCL] Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Each of today’s lessons, in its own way, points us toward the strange and wondrous world of eschatology; that is to say that they speak to our questions about the future and about our ultimate purpose, and they address our aspirations for the Church and for the world in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Eschatology is the study of the “Last Things.” Traditionally, theologians who discuss eschatology write about the topics of death, judgment, heaven, and hell. They try to answer questions like, “Does God have a plan for the world?” and “Does our life have any ultimate purpose or significance?”

Sometimes “mainstream” Christians, including Episcopalians, avoid eschatology out of concern that some people might misinterpret the darker passages in the Bible by focusing on their own deep-seated fears and speculations instead of the Gospel message of God’s mercy and reconciliation, questions about the Last Things address our most fundamental spiritual concerns for justice and seek to clarify our ultimate significance of as God’s sons and daughters. Furthermore, such questions about these topics express our highest and best hopes for the eternal life that God has promised to his people.

As Christians, we whole-heartedly affirm that the God who created the universe has a purpose and plan for the world in which we live. We also proclaim our faith that our individual and lives and our common life as the Body of Christ are part of God’s gracious design for creation.

The belief that God works in the world and in the lives of his children was an essential proclamation of the Old Testament prophets and of Christ’s preaching of the Kingdom of God. The Hebrew prophets, like many people today, were dismayed at the evil, corruption, and brokenness of the world around them.

The Old Testament lesson from Haggai offers a view of the prophet’s world. It was a bleak world in which God’s people felt dejected, found their homeland destroyed, and discovered that the Temple where the Lord’s glory had once shone was in ruins. It was a world that provided few reasons for hope.

This description of ancient Judah at the end of the exile could describe many downtrodden communities at any given period of history and perhaps many towns and cities today where the reasons for hope appear to be few and far-between. To such communities, the prophet Haggai speaks of God’s promise to restore what has fallen to the glory of his kingdom. The Lord’s message to them, and to his people today, is clear: “Take courage, all you people of the land… I am with you…My Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” The prophet offers a word of hope and a vision of God’s restoration of his people to abundant prosperity and peace. The land once again will have provisions, and the glory of God once more will shine among those who trust in the Lord. Indeed, Haggai insists that the future condition of God’s people will surpass all its past triumphs: “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts, and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”

Like so many visions in the Bible, this is an eschatological vision, a vision of a future full of hope. It is a view toward God’s ultimate purposes for his people. His purpose for them is to fill them with his own splendor and glory in a future restoration and final triumph. We can trust that such a vision is true because it is grounded in God and in God’s essential goodness and sovereignty.

Equally, a close reading of today’s Epistle lesson from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians also suggests an eschatological hope for Christians who may be in a bad way. Saint Paul’s original audience was a church community that felt under assault from outside forces that seemed directly opposed to the grace and love of God as they had experienced it. He warned them not to be shaken or overly worried by their problems and difficulties; rather, the Apostle urged them to remember the promises of God to vindicate his faithful people on the Last Day. Such promises are made in light of God’s purposes for us and for the world.

As we read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians we are reminded that God also chose us to be holy and to inherit the glory of his Son Jesus Christ, like he chose those early Christians. As people of faith, we can stand firm on the Gospel because God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ are certain, and we can take comfort because God’s plans for us are good: “Now may the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.”

Of all the lessons, however, the portion of the Luke’s Gospel that we read today offers us a clear message about God’s plan for our future. On this particular occasion, several Sadducees questioned Jesus regarding levirate marriage, the practice of widows marrying their husband’s brother to carry on the family name and its results on the Last Day at the General Resurrection. Those who questioned Jesus did not believe in the hope that he offered to his disciples. It was an attempt to entrap him and discredit his teaching, but Jesus was not deterred. He explained that God’s promise for the age to come is a promise of transformation.

Rejecting the resurrection, as the Sadducees did, was to misunderstand something essential about who God is. God is the living God, and those who trust in him will become “like angels,” not concerned with the worries of the present, and they shall “children of God” and “children of the resurrection.”

God’s purpose is to make us like the Risen Christ, to make us like Jesus by means of our own resurrection to eternal life. Jesus grounded this hope, not in the problems of the present, but in the living God himself. Jesus reminds us that the Holy One, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of the living who can give life even to those to who have died. The Sadducees were rebuffed because their idea of God´s greatness was too small.

The tremendous greatness of God and this promise of resurrection and future transformation form an essential part of our Christian faith. Day-in and day-out the Church proclaims that we believe in “God, the Father Almighty,” “the resurrection of the body,” and “everlasting life”.

We believe that despite our particular problems and burdens, God will convert our frequently inglorious present into a life of eternal significance filled with joy, peace, and an incorruptible glory—we will become like our risen Savior Jesus Christ. Such a transformation will not be the product of our human devising, nor will it be a reward for our own good works. Rather, it will be fruit of God’s love and grace at work in our lives to bring about God’s good purposes for us through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Download the sermon for Proper 27(C).

The way of truth, hope and love, 25 Pentecost, Proper 27 (C) – 2013

November 10, 2013

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 (or Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9); 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17; Luke 20:27-38

As is fairly typical, in today’s gospel story Jesus replies to a conundrum with a conundrum. He’s given a sort of riddle about a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. After all, marriage vows are only valid while both partners are alive, right? “Until death us do part,” as we used to say, or “until we are parted by death.”

And the Sadducees, who are among Jesus’ critics, want to know: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

They don’t believe in the resurrection, you see, and so they are trying to mock him, to show how silly and unworkable an idea eternal life is. They are trying to demonstrate that the things we hold dear in this life, including the bond and covenant of marriage, will make no sense in the next life. And they are trying to depict Jesus as a kind of oddball faith healer and snake handler, whose fundamental claims just don’t make any sense.

And, of course, they are right.

Jesus is very easy to mock. Eternal life is a silly and unworkable idea. And the fundamental claims of Christianity really do not make any sense – especially when compared with the values of the secular world. This was true in Jesus’ time, and it is still very true in our day.

Let’s start with the most striking of the implicit assertions made by the Sadducees: The fundamental claims of Christianity just do not make any sense.

Let’s see – love God and love your neighbor. That’s fundamental, right? But most of our world is obsessed with power, prestige, wealth and control. If we but admit to the existence of God, then we have to acknowledge that the things we have are simply lent to us. We are stewards of our possessions, including our earthly bodies. All that we have is a gift from God, and only of value while we are alive on this earth.

But the culture we live in says this is my home, my money, my whatever. And I can do with it whatever I want.

But when we acknowledge the existence of God, we also acknowledge that we are not in control, not the ultimate judge, not the great power of the universe – or even the family.

But the world says otherwise. Our society is full of people who insist on their own way, on their own individual authority. It happens at the simplest levels of human interaction, and it happens at the highest levels of government and industry.

And those two points – not owning things and not being in ultimate control – they are just the first two steps toward acknowledging that God exists. It’s still a long, long way before one can love God.

And what about loving our neighbor? Our society doesn’t always uphold this, does it?

So, loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself – these two great commandments to those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians: They are not the values of our country, of our society or of our world.

Then there’s the idea of eternal life – a silly and unworkable idea. The Sadducees have shown us that. When we think of eternity like this, we are failing to use our imagination.

The problem is that they – and we – have failed to imagine it as something we will actually like. And yet we are promised ineffable joys, never-failing care, the strength of God’s presence, rejoicing in eternal glory, being received into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and being reunited with those who have gone before in the paradise of God.

When you talk about those things, on that kind of scale, then wasting a lot of energy on whether we will live forever, or to whom we may be married, or whatever – well, it seems a whole lot more like another manifestation of that power and control thing, doesn’t it? “I demand to know, and I can afford to pay for the knowledge” or  something like that.

Yet, the fullness of God’s love and truth is not known to any of us – not yet. And that’s exactly why Jesus is so easy to mock.

We don’t know everything. As St. Paul says it, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” Remember, that in the first century, a mirror was not likely to be one of today’s manufactured, perfectly smooth and clear glasses. Looking into a mirror was like looking into a brook or stream, or into a highly polished rock.

Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but when the end comes, “we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The Christian dispensation acknowledges that we do not know, we do not have control, we are not in charge.

So, how is it we have come to believe?

Here’s a story, about two friends. Alice is a priest, and more than a dozen years ago, a seminarian called Bill spent a summer assisting in her parish. It’s a wonderful and special place. The first time he served Communion to Alice, she looked him right in the eye and said, “I believe!”

He was stunned. First of all, he was taught never to look anyone in the eye at Communion. He still isn’t sure why that was, but it used to be a kind of unspoken rule. And second, the Prayer Book clearly states that the appropriate response to “The Body of Christ” is a polite and reverent “Amen,” not an ebullient and loud declaration like “I believe!”

Over the course of the summer, Bill adjusted to Alice’s ways, and became accustomed to hearing “I believe” week after week. And his last week there, Alice invited him to dinner.

It was one of those late-summer evenings that are just perfect for sitting on the porch, rocking. He remembers they had corn on the cob, steaks on the grill, and tonic with their gin.

He mustered up his courage and asked her, “Why, Mother Alice, do you say ‘I believe’ when you receive Communion?”

“I started that a long time ago,” she told him. “It was a time of questioning and doubt for me. I couldn’t be sure there even was a God. And I wanted to know. I wanted to be certain, to be in control. And I figured the only way to get there was to ‘fake it till you make it.’ So one day, I just said, ‘I believe.’ What I really meant was, ‘I’d like to believe,’ or, even better, ‘I think I’m considering believing.’

It was all very tentative. And it was an invitation to God, at least as she intended it. As she explained, it was almost as if she were saying “Show me how to believe,” or “Improve my belief,” or even “Help my unbelief.”

“It was many, many years later,” she continued, “that I realized, O my God, I believe. I really do. Oh, I have questions, sure. And I have doubts from time to time. And a whole lot of this just doesn’t make any sense. But I believe, and that’s all that matters.”

Alice’s witness is a powerful one. It shows us how we can stand up to the powers that be in this society of ours, how we can continue to show another way to the world.

The way of truth, the way of hope, the way of love.

The journey of faith is not a life lived without doubt or questions, the life of a Christian is not one without trial or travail, and the earthly pilgrimage is not about control and power.

It’s about truth, hope, and above all, love.

And all of this begins not with “I insist” or “I own” or “I want” – but with the simple, elegant and hopeful proclamation, “I believe.”

 

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is a priest of the Diocese of Newark. 

Eternal comfort, Pentecost 24, Proper 27 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21 or Psalm 98 (Track 2: Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9); 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

This, the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, in many parishes and missions, holds the place for All Saints’ Day. Many congregations – and the rubrics – allow for the celebration of All Saints’ to be transferred to the Sunday following November 1. But why? What is so important about the Feast of All Saints’ that makes it desirable, acceptable, and correct to move it to a Sunday?

In order to answer that, let’s pay close attention to the lections for today, not paying attention only to their substance, but their tone. As we pray today’s collect, read or hear read the appointed verses from the second epistle to the Thessalonians and the gospel of Luke, what images come to mind? As we meditate on the reading assigned for this Sunday, this twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, how are our imaginations guided and excited? How do we experience and see God’s message for us?

The collect speaks of eternal life and Jesus coming again and our transformation – taking on a fuller likeness of him in the eternal kingdom. The second epistle to the church in Thessalonica begins with: “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” and ends with “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” The gospel account according to Luke reminds us that God is a living God and is god of the living, not the dead.

Any ideas about what is happening or why these particular references? In an intentional and specific way, the lessons on this Sunday begin to turn attention to the “end times” or the eschaton. We are being led, being prepared to travel again, through the season of Advent. We are being reminded of God’s plan of salvation that reaches its zenith with the promised birth of the Messiah. And even more particularly, we are being encouraged to take heart and trust in the Lord and the promise of his second coming and new and unending life in God’s eternal kingdom.

This connection, following closely on the heels of the celebration of the Feast of All Saints’, brings our understanding of heaven and earth, death and life, hope and despair into proper balance. So often it is very easy for us to spend an inordinate amount of energy and attention on those things that are not right, asking questions about why God is allowing this or that, asking questions about how it is all supposed to work out, asking questions about when it will end, when Christ will return.

Ultimately today’s collect with the epistle and gospel point us to the reality of our salvation and the importance of our focus on the person of Christ. When we focus on Christ, we are focusing on love and healing, on hope and joy. It seems that our worry is nothing new, for even the members of the Thessalonian church appear to have been concerned about the what and when. The weight of the first paragraph of today’s epistle lection rests on calming the fears of the faithful and reminding them that they already have enough information about what is to come and how it will happen.

This has particular relevance for us in modern times, as so much seems to be happening that many wonder, “How much worse can it get?” Within and without our nation, people seem to polarizing along political, theological, economic, and national lines. So much of what is truly good and life-giving and Spirit-filled seems to be drowned out by the cacophony of discontent and vitriol. We, as believers in and followers of Christ, must be ready to remind each other of the promise to which we cling. We must be the ones who look into the difficult situations of our time, our world, our nation, our church and continue to see the promise of our salvation.

We have to be the ones who are comforted and then turn to comfort each other and those we are called to serve, with the message of the gospel and the understanding that even the difficulties of this life, even death itself, cannot change the fact that, as Jesus reminds us, God is the God of the living and not the dead.

We began our discussion with questions about the place of All Saints’ Day in our collective understanding and practice. The Feast of All Saints’ drives home the point we have evidence of our hope in the continuing lives of the saints who have gone on before. We acknowledge the memory and impact of those heroes and heroines of the faith who continue to live, not only with God, but in our collective memories. We hold fast to the reality that the path to Heaven has been well-established by our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ and has been followed by countless others – known and unknown – to the everlasting kingdom of the Almighty. We can draw confidence that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” and thereby have strength to always look heavenward and rejoice.

As we move through the days to come, especially when we find it difficult to see past the immediate difficulties of the day, we might do well to remember the words of Isaac Watts, known to many as the words to hymn 253:

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

Once they were mourning here below,
And wet their couch with tears:
They wrestled hard, as we do now,
With sins, and doubts, and fears.

I ask them whence their victory came:
They, with united breath,
Ascribe their conquest to the Lamb,
Their triumph to His death.

They marked the footsteps that He trod,
His zeal inspired their breast;
And following their incarnate God,
Possess the promised rest.

Our glorious Leader claims our praise
For His own pattern giv’n;
While the long cloud of witnesses
Show the same path to Heav’n.

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Written by the Rev. Lawrence Womack
The Rev. Lawrence Womack currently serves as associate rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has served parishes in Baltimore, Maryland; and Buffalo, New York (as a seminarian). He is active in HIV-AIDS ministry and advocacy and proudly serves as a husband and father of three children.

Strength, comfort, and assurance, Pentecost 24, Proper 27 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Haggai 1:15b-2:9 or Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or 98 or 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

In today’s gospel reading, the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, confronted Jesus with the question of what life would be like if there truly was life after death. They wanted Him to assure them that the human laws, given by Moses, would also apply if there was life after death. In a powerful statement about the reality of the resurrected life, Jesus declared that it is absurd to compare physical life with the resurrected life:

“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Paul’s letters to the church at Thessalonica were devoted to addressing the issue of how to wait for the return of Christ. In this passage from the second letter, Paul confirmed the wisdom given in the passage from Luke, assuring the people that in the resurrection the faithful would be united with Christ: “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.”

Certainly, this letter addressed the doubts that many followers had about the return of Christ and the context of life in the resurrection. As time went on after the crucifixion and resurrection, the early Christians began to lose hope of the imminent return of Christ. They began to question the promise of their own resurrection to a new life. But Paul gave them this assurance: “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation, through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”

Like many of Paul’s letters, this one sought to give strength, comfort, and assurance to the new Christians who were challenged in their faith by both external persecutions and inner doubts.

Holding faith in the mystery and power of the resurrection is a challenge to all of us. We, like the early Christians, are tested and tried by both internal and external powers. The powers of death and evil are ever present. When we find our faith wanting, we have many verses of scripture that help us focus on the reality of the resurrection; both Christ’s and our own. Unlike the first followers of Jesus, we have a deposit of faith through both the Old and New Testaments to strengthen and inspire us. Although the gospels and the epistles bring us encouragement, perhaps the most powerful affirmation of resurrection is taken from a book in the Hebrew scripture.

The book of Job is often recommended by pastors responding to situations that call for words of hope and inspiration. It is used to give people faith when it is impossible to understand or explain the mystery of suffering. What is so significant in this book is the exploration of the depth of faith in the midst of suffering.

The simple story is that Job was a righteous man who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It is a difficult book because the story of Job becomes a contest between Satan and God for the soul of Job. Satan challenged God to abandon Job and see if Job would continue to be faithful to God. The book recited the many trials and tribulations Job suffered, including being taunted by his friends to forsake his faith in God. In the passage we read today, Job responded with perhaps the most well-known affirmation of faith in the resurrection:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has thus been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”

This powerful affirmation is well known to Episcopalians because of its use in the Book of Common Prayer. We hear the priest recite a paraphrase of that passage from Job as an anthem at the beginning of the Office of the Burial of the Dead: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”

The other place in our culture where this passage has become widely known is in “The Messiah” by Handel. Perhaps many people think of that aria immediately upon hearing these powerful and moving words.

The question of what happens to us in the resurrection transcends time. Christians in all ages have posed similar questions to ministers and to themselves; just as the Sadducees confronted Jesus. In our technologically advanced scientific and medical world, the concept of a physical bodily resurrection is one dismissed by many.

Clearly belief in the resurrection of Christ is the central article of our faith. It is our foundational doctrine, which gives us the hope and the assurance that we too shall live in the resurrection of our own lives at our mortal death. When we come to that state of resurrection, we shall be united to Christ in a state for which we have no foreknowledge. Through our baptism and through taking communion, we affirm our belief in Christ’s promise of a resurrected life.

We must not trouble ourselves, as the Sadducees did, about what laws would or would not apply in the resurrection. Like Job and countless faithful people throughout the ages, we must believe in the resurrection. We must believe that, in the mystery of the resurrection of Christ, we are promised a life in the resurrection with Him and with all of the saints and angels who have gone before us. This is Christ’s promise to His followers throughout the generations.


The Rev. Frederic Guyott, III, is a priest in the Diocese of New Jersey serving in parish ministry and has also served in the dioceses of Pennsylvania, Bethlehem, and Delaware. He received a Master of Divinity (1993) from the Episcopal Divinity School and a Master of Sacred Theology (1997) from the General Theological Seminary. The Rev. Guyott has been a private school and university chaplain, and he founded an after-school youth enrichment program in Philadelphia based on academics and squash racquets. E-mail: urbansquash@myexcel.com.