Epiphany Five Year A 2017
Fr. Dale Matson
This is the fifth Sunday of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek verb meaning, "to reveal," and during the season of the Epiphany we see Christ increasingly revealed to us until He fully reveals Himself in His transfiguration on the last Sunday of the Epiphany.
I find it interesting that while the Calvinists portray man as “Totally depraved” because of original sin, Article nine of our 39 articles of the Anglican Church states in part, “Man is very far gone from original righteousness.” So the image of God while dimly lit still remains in us. I would like to begin with two verses that may at first seem unrelated.
“No man can enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.” (Mark 3:27)
“And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. “ (2nd Corinthians 12:9)
In context it is often understood that the first verse is referring to Jesus binding demons that possess people and casting them out. In the second verse cited, however, Paul gloried in his weakness that the God’s power would manifest itself through Paul. In this case Paul was the strong man who was made weak (bound) by God that God’s power would come forth.
The contemporary evangelical preacher Paul Washer stated, “Dear God, If Your kingdom will advance and Your name will be glorified through me being ground to powder then so be it." St. Teresa of Calcutta once said that she wished to drink to the last drop, from the cup of Christ’s suffering.
What is it that these latter two individuals understand about their relationship to Christ? They are connected to Christ through suffering, through loss, through their death to themselves and new life in Him. They are His slaves yoked to Him in all things to advance His agenda and proclaim His Glory. As we say in our Morning Prayer Collect, “To know Him is eternal life, to serve Him is perfect freedom.
I still remember quite well when I walked down the aisle of the church to be baptized as an adult. Satan said to me quite distinctly, “You’re throwing your life away for this Jesus.” Satan is an ironic liar since this was both a lie and the truth. The life I had led was only worth throwing away. My weakness had brought me to baptism. I wanted to drown the old man.
Following that, one of my favorite verses was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But was I really putting on Christ and being transformed by the renewing of my mind or was I wrongly thinking of Christ as an enabler, a means of getting my goals accomplished and my reputation advanced. Who’s glory was I really seeking as I built a professional resume’? Was He just a performance-enhancing drug that one downs like a can of Red Bull? What I failed to emphasize in my life was the verse that preceded it. “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
I am an ordinary person, nothing more, and nothing less, merely adequate. While God helped me to stop killing myself on the installment plan I saw this approach as the road to sanctification. What was missing was the interior work. St. Paul would call this the “Rootedness.” For me it was all “Top Growth”. My interior life remained a mess with ruminations, lack of trust in others in general and God in particular. As I look back, I believe the best way to describe me was a hard case, self-righteous SOB. My older son told me a few years ago that I had not really changed at all. It was difficult to hear and easy to deny.
And then came the heart issues for me. I recently discovered I had coronary artery disease (CAD). This was not a symptom of poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive weight or even heredity. I had hardening of the arteries because I had a hard heart. I was fearful, angry, impatient, prideful, controlling and condescending. My heart was not a victim of external stressors. My heart was merely reflecting its contents. Just as C.S. Lewis said that a grumbler becomes a grumble. We say in our collect for purity, “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.” Was I following St. Paul’s godly advice? “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” No, I was not. (Philippians 4:8)
God bound the strongman and I was the strongman. Are you still the strongman?
After having stents placed in my arteries to my heart I was placed on a blood thinner to avoid clots forming in the stents. Not long after that I developed a GI bleed. During my GI bleeding, where I lost half my blood, there was a “Catch 22” situation. You’ve probably heard the phrase “Catch 22”. It is a difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions. I was in danger of bleeding to death but if I was infused with blood, the infused blood could form a clot in my stents inserted to expand my narrowed arteries and I would have a heart attack. Additionally, there can be other dangers from contaminants in some donated blood.
The ancients believed that the life was in the blood. “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life.” (Leviticus 17:11) When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said, ““What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10) When the Roman soldier pierced the side of Jesus with a lance, His blood mixed with water flowed onto the ground. (John 19:34)
When the bread and wine are consecrated, they are also His body and His blood. Christ is truly present in the elements of bread and wine. Following my hospitalization, as I knelt at the rail to receive the body and blood of Christ, my eyes began to tear up because I had an Epiphany of sorts myself. I realized that while I couldn’t receive donated blood from a human I would be infused with the blood of Christ. His perfect blood sacrificed, substituted and replaced what was missing in me. His perfect life substituted for my sinful life. When the cup is offered, the Eucharistic minister states, “The blood of Christ; the cup of salvation.” “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54)
Martin Luther stated in his Large Catechism, “Those who are aware of their weakness, desire to be rid of it and long for help, should regard and use it only as a precious antidote against the poison they have in them. For here in the Sacrament you are to receive from the lips of Christ the forgiveness of sin, which contains and brings with it the grace of God and the Spirit with all His gifts, protection, shelter and power against death, the devil and all misfortune.”
While St. Paul referred to our body as a temple, he also referred to it as an earthly tent. Perhaps it is better to think of our bodies as a tent, which is more fragile and less durable than a temple. St. Paul said in Romans, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Yet we cling to our lives with such tenacity. Why can’t I see like John the Baptist who said, “He must become greater and I must become less.” (John 3:30) Why can’t we say, “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:10)
Am I there yet? Am I completely submitted to the perfect will of God? No. It may be far better to depart and be with Christ as St. Paul stated but he stayed for the sake of his brothers and sisters. I would rather for the time being stay than depart.
This is a severe testing for me and I often think of the verse, “No trial has overtaken you that is not distinctively human; and God is faithful; He will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear, but with the trial will also provide the way through, so that you will be able to endure it.” (Mounce)
I am privy to the Daughters of the Holy Cross Prayer list and realize how many others in our faith community have been pushed to the very limits in their suffering. Yet prayer held them aloft when they reached those limits. How many times have God’s angles surrounded us and like Christ, the angles have ministered to us in our own wilderness of suffering? How many times has the Holy Spirit spoken to a health care provider and inspired them with treatment options they would not have considered or guided the hands of a surgeon?
This suffering is not just of a physical nature. Some suffer primarily from emotional brokenness where a torn shoelace in the morning means the beginning of another day of despair. I asked my cardiologist to take me off a blood pressure medication because I could feel myself slipping into a depression, which can be a side effect of a beta-blocker.
The popular “Prosperity gospel” would have us living the triumphant life. They would say we should be prosperous and live the abundant life but the Christian through suffering lives the transcendent life. Christ baptized us with the Spirit and Fire and our suffering is that fire. Christians are yoked to Christ and share in His suffering. Christians live mostly at the foot of the cross not the pinnacle of the temple.
As St. Paul stated, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” I am weak from anemia and it is only too easy to hyper reflect. Hyper reflect means to obsessively focus on myself, yet my love and compassion for others has increased. It is so much easier now to say to others, I love you and to end correspondence with love. To have the mind of Christ is to have the heart of Christ.
Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” I am absolutely certain that God’s highest priority for humans is the salvation of our souls. I believe that He would destroy my body to save my soul. At some point, there will be no more pride no more fear, no more anger, no more pain. As stated in Revelation, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
What has God been saying to me lately? What really counts? Not the latest national news. “Get in touch with your friends, your family, and members of your faith community. Listen to them. Get out of yourself. Tell them that you love them. Tell them you will pray for them.” This is my new action plan for the future. Maybe I will live another decade or die tomorrow but these exhortations from God need to be added to my activities of daily living (ADL). How about you? Amen.