Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sunday October 18th 2009. Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

Church of St Athanasius, Glen Allen, Virginia

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer”. Ps 19


“Jesus entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into His own city”. Matt, Ch. 9, v1.

Some of you may be wondering what is town is it that is being referred to here. Is it Nazareth or somewhere else? Well, if you go back to Chapter 4 of Matthew’s gospel you will find the answer to that question. In verses 12-17 of Chapter 4 we have the following:

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested He withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made His home in Capernaum by the Lake, in the territory of Zabulon and Naptali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zabulon, land of Naphtali, on the road to the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, a light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near””. Matt. Ch. 4 vv 12-17

It is important to realize that Jesus did not go from Nazareth to Capernaum because He was afraid of King Herod who, as the scripture tells us, had just arrested John the Baptist. No, Jesus us made of sterner stuff and was not afraid of the petty tyrant Herod. The reason Jesus went to Capernaum was that He realized that with the departure of John the Baptist from the public arena, the time had come for Jesus to start His own public ministry. He had to go to Capernaum so that the prophecy of Isaiah could be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulon, Land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, a light has dawned.” Isaiah, Ch. 9, vv 1-2.

This area in northern Israel was an invasion route for the Syrian armies over the years. Naturally, it could be called “the region and shadow of death”. Just as in the same way the plains of Flanders were invasions leading into the heartland of the French kingdom and had more than their share of bloodletting and death. But times are changing. Matthew’s gospel message is that a light has dawned, hope is coming to this troubled areas.

In some liturgies the mass ends with the “second gospel”, namely a reading from the opening verses of the Gospel of John. In that section we hear the following:

“The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” John, Ch. 1, v9.

In other words, in Matthew’s account of the gospel which we read today, we are witnessing the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Let us look at that section of the scriptural text.

The gospel text:

The gospel text which we read today was obviously near the beginning of the public ministry. Jesus has not yet picked all of His disciples and it is only after this passage in scripture which we read today, that we find Him selecting Levi, son of Alphaeus, whom we also know as St. Matthew, the writer of this present gospel. (Ch. 9, v.9)

It is interesting that Jesus begins this miraculous cure by first telling the paralytic man that his sins are forgiven. Now His hearers would have been well aware of the teaching of the prophet Isaiah which said that only God could forgive sins. In Chapter 42, v. 25 of Isaiah we have the following words of God, prophesied by Isaiah:

“I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins”. (note the use of ‘I am’)

So the hearers of Jesus were faced with a choice: either they could consider Him a blasphemer, or they could consider that He was in fact divine, He was the messiah who was to come. Since Jesus could read their thoughts, He realized that they were taking the former course; they were considering that He was a blasphemer. So Jesus proposes a test:

“For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?

Obviously, it would be easier to say “your sins are forgiven”, since no one could objectively disprove this statement. On the other hand, a command “Rise and Walk” addressed to the paralytic man, could be tested by everyone present by seeing whether or not the man gets up and walks! Well, Jesus chooses the more difficult task: where failure would promptly discredit Him. And He does it for a reason. Look at verse 6:

“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”, He then said to the paralytic, “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home”. And he stood up and went to his home”.

What is important here, is that Jesus is using the miraculous cure to teach a lesson, namely that He has the power to forgive sins. Several weeks ago in the Sunday liturgy we had the story of the raising of the widow’s son from the dead. And the gospel text told us that Jesus had compassion on the widow. Miracles are not done by Christ and His followers to show off. They have very specific messages. The raising of the widow’s son was done for three reasons, a) because Jesus had compassion on the widow for the loss of her only son; b) that Jesus wanted to demonstrate that God was the Creator of the whole universe and had power over evertything, even death; and c) He wanted to demonstrate that the promised Messiah had come, and that He was fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah regarding the promised coming. Similarly, in the miracle that Jesus performs in today’s gospel extract we must recognize that it is not performed to show off, but to teach a lesson, namely that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. I quote:

“So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins – He then said to the paralytic – ‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your house’”.

That simply is the reason for the miracle – to demonstrate that Jesus, the Son of God, has the power to forgive sins.

Forgiveness of sins:

I think the marvelous thing here is that the first miracle which happened to the paralytic man is the more magnificent. We tend to forget it in the light of the spectacular second miracle, when Jesus heals the paralytic of his physical illness and tells him to get up and walk. But look at the first miracle:

“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’” V.2

This is the first thing that Jesus is concerned with: the man’s standing before God, his state of repentance, the condition of the man’s soul. It is only after the man has been cleansed of his sins, that he is cured of his physical illness. There is an order of priorities here and that should be our order of priorities as well.

I don’t want to go into it too much in this sermon but it would be remiss of me if I didn’t at least mention it in passing. I want you to look again at that text of the gospel in Ch. 9, v. 2 of Matthew:

“And just then some people were carrying a paralysed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Note, that when Jesus saw their faith He proceeded to forgive the sins of the paralytic man. In other words the prayers and faith of the man’s supporters brought him firstly forgiveness of sins, and secondly bodily healing. There is no real evidence of any particular faith on the part of the individual himself, but the faith and the charity of his supporters was sufficient to bring Jesus’ forgiving and healing power into action. We must remember this: as a church we have the power to help those around us by our faith and our prayers.

This particular chapter of Matthew’s gospel is much concerned with the treatment of sinners. In verse 10 of this chapter we have the following:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with Him and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners’. On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Now there is a problem in the church today which could be said to have arisen, in part, from these very verses of St. Matthew’s gospel which we have just read. There are many Christian who do not want to find themselves in the position of the self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes, and that is good.

However, they subscribe to the notion of “inclusiveness”. If Jesus could associate with sinners and eat with them at table, who are we to do differently? These modern-day Christians go out of their way to display their solidarity with sinners. In this they are right! Jesus Himself said that He had come not to call the righteous but sinners, and, remember, all of us are sinners. Consequently, His Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, must not shy away from seeking out and associating with sinners. But here is where we differ from so many modern churchmen.

We do not condemn sinners, but we do condemn sin. We seek out the company of sinners in order that we may offer them the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and the possibility of the forgiveness of their sins. We do not agree that our bishops and clergy should join with sinners in their sinful ways. That was not what Jesus did, nor should we.


It is important that we realize the significance of the healing miracle of the paralytic man. Jesus expressly said that He performed that miracle in order to show definitively that He had the power to forgive sins. We must remember that that power has been passed on to His church.

You remember the incident when the disciples were all gathered together in the room after the Resurrrection and suddenly Jesus appeared to them: John, Ch. 20, vv21-23.

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Bringing salvation and forgiveness of sins to mankind is the core of the Christian message and central to the Church’s mission, which is our mission, individually and collectively.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sermon: 17th Sunday after Trinity

Sunday 4th October 2009. Church of St. Athanasius, Glen Allen, Virginia.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.” Ps. 19


There are three distinct sections in today’s gospel selection from Luke. The social dynamics are quite fascinating as we watch how Jesus interacts with the other persons present at the Sabbath meal. First, there is the episode of the healing of the man with dropsy. Then there is the section where Jesus gives advice to His fellow invitees on how to behave on social occasions. Lastly, there is the section in which He gives advice to the host on how to conduct himself when organizing a similar meal again.

Let us start with the first section, the healing of the man with dropsy.

The man with dropsy:

The first section deals with Jesus going into the house of a leading Pharisee for the Sabbath meal. One could presume that Jesus was invited because He happens to be the visiting preacher to the area. But this presumption is probably wrong. This scene comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth and by this time many of the leading Pharisees and Sadducees were too well aware of His teachings and were acquainted with His miracles and so on. As a group they did not like Him and they were certainly looking for ways to catch Him out.

These people were afraid that He was disturbing the status quo and that He could upset the delicate balance which existed between the Jewish leaders and the Roman overlords. These people were the successful people in Jewish society. They were rich and powerful and men of influence. They did not want that situation to be disturbed by any itinerant preacher.

So the invitation to dinner was not really an honor being extended to Jesus, but an occasion in which His opponents hoped that He would betray Himself and give them some ammunition in their campaign to vilify Him. Interestingly enough, they were probably in the crowds watching His crucifixion several weeks later.

The fact that the occasion was not as socially pleasant as it might at first appear on the surface is made clear by the evangelist Luke in his very first verse:

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching Him closely”. Luke, Ch. 14, v. 1.

Note, they were watching Him closely. The whole occasion was a set-up; it was part of the prolonged, continuous campaign by the leaders of the Jewish people to trap the Messiah into something that would provide them with ammunition with which to attack Him.

I said it was a “set-up”: look at what happens in verse 2:

“Just then, in front of Him, there was a man who had dropsy”

Did this sick man just happen to be there? Was he by chance one of the invited guests to the meal? Well, almost certainly the answer to both those questions is “No”. This was part of a trap to ensnare Jesus. But Jesus was aware of the motives and the agenda of the Pharisees and He rose to the challenge.

“And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent.” V. 3

There is a duel here between the Son of God and the forces of Evil. The latter are trying to entrap Jesus, and He in His turn, is presenting the Christian message, calmly, clearly and dramatically. Note the response of the lawyers and Pharisees: “But they were silent”.

So what did Jesus do? The scripture tells us:

“Jesus took him and healed him and sent him away” v. 4

Notice, that Jesus “sent him away”; he obviously had not been one of the invited guests and his presence there had almost certainly been arranged by the Pharisees as part of a plan to entrap Jesus. Jesus’ answer to their machinations is a healing cure! Jesus is returning good for evil.

For the Jews of this period, dropsy was a disease which resulted from sexual immorality (I am not making any comment on modern medical explanations for dropsy) so for the Jews this man was somewhat odious in character. So go back to the social dynamic that I was talking about earlier. This was not really a pleasant, social occasion that it might at first appear. There were social currents and counter-currents, and hidden agenda present at this particular meal. It was probably not much different from the average freemasons’ dinner!

But Jesus is not content to let the man with dropsy go on his way healed. He invites the assembled lawyers and Pharisees to a discussion:

“…is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not? But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him and sent him away.” V. 4

But they were silent: we are back again to the social dynamic that I talked about earlier. These Pharisees and lawyers did not have the courage of their convictions. They could not, or better perhaps, would not answer that simple question: Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?

So Jesus forces the issue; He asks the assembled group:

“Then He said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.” V. 6.

They could not reply to this. Remember, these are the educated elite of the Jewish people. Suddenly they are tongue-tied! They have no answer to the Son of God! It is as though, in their heart of hearts, they know that the position they are taking is wrong.

I feel that the most important lesson of this scripture text lies in this section. Somehow, we have to watch the artificial barriers we set up in our belief systems; we must constantly ensure that they are not barriers to prevent the action of the grace of God within us.

The Christian Church today is rent with very similar disputes. Just this week I heard that the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles, Jon Bruno, apologized to the Hindus of LA for the efforts that Christian missionaries over the years had made to convert them. To make amends he invited the Hindus to celebrate a mass with the Episcopalians and share communion with the participants. I could ask in the spirit of Jesus: “Is it lawful to celebrate the eucharist with polytheistic pagans?”

Personally, had I been living in the time of Jesus I would like to think that I would not have sided with the lawyers and Pharisees. I would have wanted, then and now, to be on the side of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. My prayer for all of us is that we can discern the mind of God in the situations in which we, as Christians, find ourselves in these turbulent times.

The behavior of the guests:

The second section of today’s gospel deals with Jesus’ remarks which He addressed to the assembled guests. He had noticed how they had all tried to take the most elevated positions in the dining arrangements. His advice was very homely: don’t get yourself into an embarrassing position; if you choose the highest place the chances are that someone more “important” than you will come and you will have to be bounced down the table to your embarrassment.

These sort of social arrangements may be strange to you. Let me give you an example. To qualify at the bar of England one must belong to one of the four Inns of Court: Gray’s Inn, Lincolns Inn, the Middle Temple, and the Inner Temple. Having gained admittance into a particular inn, one must then pass all the necessary legal examinations to qualify as a barrister. But there is one more hurdle, and that is “dinners”: one had to eat a specified number of dinners in the hall of one’s inn and attendance was recorded. At these dinners there were elaborate rules: who could sit where; who could speak when; how to address one’s fellows; how one mess toasted another mess and in what order; what dress was appropriate; what particular toasts should be used on one occasion or another; it went on and on. There was a Mister Senior and a Mister Junior; there were benchers; there were judges; there were butlers; there was unending protocol. So the whole idea that Jesus was referring to in this gospel passage was alive and well back in England in the 1970s. To get bounced out of your seat at table for someone more “important” than you was not uncommon – one could even find oneself relegated to the position of Mister Junior! A fate worse than death!

But we are talking here about something more important than embarrassment. What is at stake is the sin of pride. Remember how Jesus said that He had seen Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening:

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening” Luke, Ch. 10, v.18

The cause of Satan’s fall was pride! Satan felt that he was as good as God. Satan forgot that he was a creature of God.

Jesus is asking the assembled guests to stop for a moment and consider on what grounds they based their own perceived importance! Was it money? Was it title? Was it age? Was it lineage? Do any of these things really give you more importance than your fellow man?

Jesus addresses these same questions to us today: on what do we base our own importance? Our wealth? Our education? Our position in society? Our position in the eyes of God as a humble and penitent sinner? The whole point of this section of the gospel reading is a warning against pride. Pride is an easy sin. With pride one can still feel satisfied that one is a good and pious Christian: don’t I give to the poor? Don’t I attend church on Sundays? Am I not a pillar of the community? And so on. It is so easy to fall into the sine of pride – I am here where I am in society because of my own efforts, goodness and abilities. God and His gifts drift into the background and are forgotten. Suddenly, I am here because I am really “damned good”.

I mean that intentionally. Damned – just like Satan was damned when he started to think that he was as good as God. Forgetting that his gifts came from God. Forgetting that he was a creature of the Creator. Jesus was telling the guests at this meal, remember who you are; don’t get full of your own importance; you are simply a creature of God. Those words are addressed to each and every one of us today.

Advice to the Host:

The last section of today’s gospel deals with Jesus advice to the host of this particular Sabbath dinner.

“He said also to the one who had invited Him. ‘Whenever you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid’”. Luke, Ch. 14, v 12.

Note, “and you would be repaid”! Jesus is saying to the host to look elsewhere. Don’t spend your largesse and your wealth and your generosity among the social circles that are going to repay you with similar hospitality. Rather:

“…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” V.14

You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.


There are several messages coming from today’s gospel text.

Firstly, try to discern the mind of God in the situation in which we find ourselves and not fall into the legalism which was so evident in the hearts of the Pharisees and lawyers of the opening section. I am reminded of the prayer we say after communion and the petition we make:

“…so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in;”

Secondly, don’t fall into the sin of pride which was so evident among the guests to the Sabbath dinner, for it is a sin that can slide insidiously into our lives and lead us to damnation.

Thirdly, exercise charity and remember that you will be repaid a thousand times a thousand times at the resurrection of the righteous.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our "Conversation" about who is God, the Faith and Worldview got off to a great start last night. Welcome to both new and old. We will be proceeding with an examination of the history of our knowledge of God and his Revelation of Himself.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A conversation about worldview.

A discussion of agnosticism, God, the history of the Church, objections to Christianity. Robust but polite discussion welcome. Small to medium size group forming- the conversation will go where the group desires (within reason of course;-)) . Food and beverage supplied. 7 pm Monday evenings for about an hour or as long as the group wishes. More information or to RSVP 804-513-3732 John Dixon

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