Thursday, March 22, 2018

Holy Week

There’s been a significant uptick in posts here recently, what with my penning three and four homilies per week in preparation for Holy Week, and quite a few have been offered out of order. Thus, for any seeking a sensible sermon series leading up to Easter, please follow the links below.

Orpheus Failed has proven surprisingly popular with other clergy, and I’ve always wanted to begin a homily with the opening lines of The Iliad, as in Sing the Rage.

For those looking to catch up on our Lenten vespers series on the Six Ages of the World, here they are in order.

And just for the heck of it, here’s a brief Paschal Observance that I was asked to deliver earlier this month, with a general overview of Holy Week.

A blessed Triduum and Holy Pascha to all my fellow sinners. I’ll catch you on the flipside.

Rise Immortal

Propers: The Resurrection of Our Lord, A.D. 2018 B


Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel according to St Mark is the oldest extant Gospel account that we have, and the oldest copies of Mark end right here, with these verses: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” We are left, brothers and sisters, with fear and with awe.

Part of this has to do with the nature of Mark’s narrative. In his telling, the Gospel is breathless and kinetic, rushing from one moment to the next, culminating in the thorny Crown, the wooden Cross, and the empty Tomb. This was a Gospel declared on street corners, hooking in the hearer, forcing us to ask, “What happens next? What happened to Jesus? What happened to His people?”

And the answer, of course, was to be found here, in the community, in the Church. This community is the Body of Christ now, the Life of Christ. Mark wrote down his Gospel because the people who knew Jesus, the people who had witnessed the Resurrection firsthand, were dying—or more accurately, were being killed. Peter had been crucified, Paul beheaded, and James thrown down to be bludgeoned with clubs. Moreover, storm clouds were gathering over Jerusalem. The Zealots of the Holy Land had rebelled against Rome, and the Legions were massing to bring down the hammer of war, just as Jesus had warned that they would.

It was a time of darkness. It was a world of fear. It was an age of blood. No wonder Mark told the story of Jesus so breathlessly. No wonder he left his hearers hanging in amazement and in fear. “You have to understand,” Mark is telling us, “that Jesus is Risen! All this violence, all this bloodshed, all this fear, none of it can change the fact that the tomb has been rent asunder, that hell has been harrowed, that Christ is alive!—and He lives now within you.”

That’s why his Gospel is designed to bring us here, to gather us together. Because we are the Risen Christ! We are how Jesus chooses to continue His work in this world. He comes to us now in word and in water, in bread and in wine. He places into us, into our flesh and our bone, His own Spirit, His own Body, His own Blood. And when we have the Spirit of Jesus, the Body of Jesus, the Blood of Jesus—what does that make us? It makes us Jesus! It makes us sons and daughters and heirs of God! It makes us born again, born anew, born from above.

Here we are forgiven our sins and raised from the dead and sent out to be Jesus for a world still very much in need of Him. Because we live yet in a world hemmed in by death, hemmed in by violence and oppression and fear. And people need to know that Christ is Risen! They need to know that there is a power greater than the grave, a love that drowns out death, a hope that keeps rising and rising and rising from the tomb no matter how much state-sponsored violence or personal acts of betrayal we can throw at Him.

People need to know that there is so much more to our world than the suffocating narrowness of the shell in which we have entombed ourselves, a shell of limits, in which our identity and personal worth is determined by politics, preferences, and purchases, by what we buy or what we wear or what we eat or how we vote. There is more than your paycheck and your credit card debt! There is more to life than entertainment and consumption and the false faces we hold up to social media.

You and I and all of us have a destiny infinitely greater than any we could heretofore imagine. We are called to be immortal. We are called to raise the dead! We are called to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and free the prisoner and admonish the sinner and forgive the repentant without limit or condition! We are called to save the world. And we are called to do it all in Jesus’ Name, for it is He who is alive and moving within us.

Jesus is Risen. And He is hard at work saving and redeeming and resurrecting this world, no longer with one pair of hands to heal, one pair of feet to go, but with two billion pairs of hands to work and two billion tongues confessing that Christ is Lord! And this should rightly fill us with fear and with wonder. Because when Christ is Lord, that means that nobody and nothing else can rule us, can claim us, can kill us. Disease cannot stop us. Persecution cannot stop us. Death itself cannot stop us!

For those things will ultimately descend into the loamy earth of the grave, while we will rise and rise and forever rise up to the infinite life of God in Christ Jesus—because Christ is our King, and He has conquered death and hell, conquered them by filling them up to bursting with the very Life and Breath and Blood of God.

Let us remember this when we get up each morning and look at that aging face in the mirror. Let us remember that no matter what befalls us this day, this week, this life, whatever harm, whatever losses, whatever sins—it is not the end of our story. Our story ends with Him—with life beyond death, with love beyond loss, with every tear dried and every wound healed and every godawful tragedy somehow at last made right. We will live forever!

And not like this, not twisted and broken in sin. But we will live purified and perfected as the beings we were meant to become from before the beginning of time. We will at long last be human, at long last be ourselves. And each of us will shine like the sun, every one of us reflecting a facet of our Father that no one else could reveal to the world. And when we hold fast to the sure hope of this promise, then nothing in this world—not debt, not pain, not cancer or mourning—nothing can restrain us from the freedom found in the grace and the mercy and the love of God.

And this destiny belongs equally to every soul we have ever met or ever will. We are all of us children of God. And no matter what we do, no matter how far we have fallen, nothing can erase from us the image and stamp of the divine within. We have infinite value. We have infinite worth. And so does every other human being.

So when we say that Christ is Risen, when we rejoice in the sundering of His Tomb, we do so in full knowledge that we too are risen, we too arise in Christ, and it is our tomb which has been sundered, our own corpses pulled up from that grave! And so the song of our forefathers now becomes our own:

Ain’t no grave dug deep enough to hold me.
Ain’t no devil been slick enough to trick me.
Ain’t no gravedigger man enough to bury me.
You can’t hold me down!

Ain’t no grave can hold me down.
You can’t keep me underground.
When that silver trumpet sounds—
Ain’t no grave can hold me down!

Amen, I say to you, my brothers and sisters: Jesus is Risen, and we shall arise! That is promise enough, and terror enough, to fill any man with wonder and with fear. But it is a holy fear, which banishes all the terrors that would seek to torment or enslave us. All that we suffer, all that we mourn, all that we fear—we will outlive them. We will outlast them. They shall fall and we shall rise and then we will shine like the sun.

Now take this Risen Life and go—go out and raise the dead! Go and give witness to this fearful, fallen world, that death has no dominion here.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sing the Rage

Propers: The Great Vigil of Easter, A.D. 2018 B


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rage!—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls.

So begins Homer’s Iliad, one of the most human books ever written, and the closest the ancient world had to sacred scripture before the codification of the Bible. Human life is full of rage, and pain, and disappointment. Every day is a struggle, year upon year, decade upon decade. Nothing ever satisfies. Nothing ever sates.

We are all born with a hole in our heart that we are desperate to fill. And we are told, over and over again, that if we but strive a little farther, work a little harder, pass one more little test, then happiness and contentment are just around the corner. Get good grades to get a good job and you’ll be happy. Marry the right girl, raise the right kids, and you’ll be happy. Buy the right house, wear the right clothes, eat the right food, make the right choices—and you’ll be satisfied. You’ll be happy. You’ll be fulfilled!

But it never works. No matter how much we earn or what career we choose; no matter what all we manage to buy or to seduce or to consume; sooner or later it all turns to ash in the mouth. The things we think will make us happy don’t last.

And so we keep on trying something, anything, else: midlife crises, chemical addictions, credit card debt, torrid affairs. Pick your poison! But it’s not enough. It’s never enough. And so we fall into cycles of anxiety or depression or rage. We lash out at family members or neighbors or poor hapless strangers. High school shootings, mail bombings, political mob violence: all of it stems from our nihilistic rage. We are all of us starving amidst our mountains of junk.

We need a reason to live that goes beyond our politics, preferences, and purchases, beyond this artificial drive to consume without end. We need something greater than the world, because everything in this world disappoints. Everything in this world is broken. It all falls at the last into ashes and dust, our spleens vented, our wallets empty, and all our impotent rage undone.

Murderous. Doomed. Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls.

Which is why this night is so important. This night changes everything.

He came to earth as one of us, the Maker of us all. He came to forgive us our sins and heal our wounds and lead us back to home in Him. And He spoke to us in a Voice we all knew from before the beginning of time. And He told us truths about our God and ourselves and our world that we could in no way bear to tell ourselves.

And always His relentless promise: that in Him we would find relief, Life and Light and Truth, fulfilment of our aching need and release at last from the crushing weight that has enslaved us since the breaking of the world. And He told us we were kings and sons and wayward heirs of God, that all could be forgiven, all mended, all healed. Creation itself would be set right in Him. And all He asked in return is that we allow the love He poured forth into us to overflow into all the world around us, as it was in the beginning and will be forever, amen.

And we responded to all this, in the only way we knew. We poured out all our fear, our all despair, all our rage into Him. We lashed Him and we beat Him and we tied His skull with loops of thorns. We tore the flesh from His back and drove iron spines through His ankles and His wrists with a hammer. And then we hauled Him up for all the world to see, blood-red and naked, aloft and alone, and we cast Him down as hard as we could, down to the earth, down to the grave, down to the deepest and the blackest pits of hell.

And we sealed tight His tomb, and said so much for that! So much for the Messiah. So much for the Son of God.

Because that’s who we are, and that’s what we do. We do it to ourselves. We do it our world. And we do it to our God.

But then the damnedest thing happened. He got up.

We poured out everything we had into Him, all our hatred, all our brokenness, all our pain, and He just took it. He took it all upon Himself, into Himself. And He nailed it all in Him to that Cross and He sealed it all with Him in that Tomb. And then He opened up His wounded side and poured Himself out for the world. Poured out the Life and Breath and Blood of God into the world, into the grave, drowning death, harrowing hell, filling up that bottomless chasm with the infinite self-giving Love of God—the Love of which all other loves are but a pale imitation.

We ran His heart through with a spear, but His heart was greater than the spear. He was Himself more than death, more than hell, more than this or any other world! And He came back, not to punish, not for vengeance, not even for justice. But He came back to forgive us, to resurrect us, and to make us all as one in Him. Our hands still bloodied from the deed, our heads still bowed by our betrayal, yet still He comes back, to show us and all the world what it is a Man looks like when He has been made truly and fully alive. The first true Man since Adam!

What is our rage compared to a Love like that? What is despair against a Life that cannot die? We are utterly powerless to resist the mercies of the Resurrection. We cannot stop Him from Rising; God knows how hard we’ve tried. He has seen the worst of us, the darkest sins we keep locked away in the inner chambers of our broken hearts. He has seen our cruelty, our desperation, our all-consuming pride, and He has known in His own flesh how all of humanity is utterly, stark raving mad.

Yet still He comes back for us. Still He loves us. Still He reaches out His wounded hands to bring His sisters and His brothers home. There is nothing more we can inflict upon Him. There is only the sweet sublimity of surrender to a Love as inexorable and all-conquering as the tide.

Christ has conquered death this night and harrowed open hell. But more miraculous than this, He has taken upon Himself the very worst of human nature, and by it conquered us as well.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dark Triumph

Propers: Palm Sunday of the Passion, A.D. 2018 B


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The greatest and most coveted of all Roman civic and religious rituals was the Triumph. It was a ceremony awarded only to the worthiest of generals and then only rarely. The victorious commander would enter the City, dressed as a king, and painted as a god. He would be acclaimed by the Senate and People of Rome, parading through the City the spoils of war: foreign treasures, exotic animals, and most importantly, proud conquered royalty in chains.

The Triumph was how the Roman people learned about the world. It was what connected them to the conquests of the Legions in ever-farther flung corners of the globe, in bizarre lands whose names they could not pronounce and whose people they cared not to understand. And it re-presented to them the spectacle of Roman power, the innate superiority of the Republic over the barbarous kings and savage tyrants of the wide, wild world.

The conquered, mind you, had to be played up, had to seem noble and strong and impressive, because every good story needs a good villain. There is no honor, no dignitas, in defeating weaklings and waifs. The stronger the king, the greater the Triumph. And the whole thing would culminate at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus atop the Capitoline Hill—that is, the “place of the head”—where the captives would be flogged before the army and the people, and then executed as human sacrifices to Jupiter Greatest and Best.

The irony was that the victor, the Triumphator, ceased to be king-for-a-day, god-for-a-day, when the life of his victim ceased. The Triumph was the end for them both.

And this is how the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion, and death. Jesus is both Victor and Victim in an ironic inversion of the Roman Triumph.

He rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as Triumphator, hailed by the people as King, perhaps even as God. And His triumphal procession leads Him through the city right up to the Temple—but here He abruptly and unexpectedly breaks off. For the Temple, it seems, is not worthy to be the ritual climax of His Triumph. It is a temporary structure, He says, destined for destruction. Mark then picks up the narrative a few days, and a few chapters, later, with the Passion of our Lord.

Here, in the Passion narrative, Jesus is mocked and beaten by the cohort, some 600 armed men, then dressed as a king, publicly flogged, and taken to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull—that is, the place of the head!—and there crucified. Sound familiar? Golgotha is the cultic site now, the true Temple, the climax of Christ’s triumphal march. Here, on the Cross, He is both Victor and Victim, both the God-King and the Sacrifice. Here, on the Cross, is the ritual and religious imagery of Rome mocked and subverted, lifted for the world to see in all its blood-soaked horror.

Here in the shadowland between ritual and reality is the is the deep truth of our world unveiled: the truth of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son; and the truth of our own wretched, ritualized, bloodthirsty sin, ever demanding the sacrifice of human flesh. God did not invent the Cross. We did.

This proves all the more poignant when we remember that Mark was committing his Gospel account to pen and parchment right around the time that the Legions of Rome had sacked Jerusalem, ravaging the countryside, burning the Temple, and putting the inhabitants to the sword—just as Jesus had warned would happen. Titus and Vespasian, the father-son generals who spearheaded that campaign, were of course rewarded a Triumph in Rome for their victory. But it couldn’t climax at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, because they had burned that temple to the ground as well. A fitting tribute indeed to their “Triumph.”

Alas, my brothers and sisters. Nothing has changed, not in 2000 years. Still we celebrate the world over glory and conquest and mechanized mass murder. Still we demand human sacrifice to sate the dignitas of the Republic. Still our great men, our strong men, parade the spoils of war, be it on the battlefield or in the boardroom, treading all the while upon the bones of all those nameless, faceless fools who were hapless enough to get in their way.

And still atop the Place of the Skull there stands the Cross as silent witness to our horrors, putting the truth to all of our lies, and proclaiming to the world the depthless mercies of the God who forgave us even as we murdered Him, and who loved us even unto death—even death on a Cross!

For not even all this hell can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. For the Cross is the Triumph of the King.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Unto the End of the Age

Lenten Vespers, Week Five


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over the course of our Lenten vespers these past several weeks, we have spoken of the Six Ages of the World. For simplicity’s sake, I have called these thus far the Age of Myth, the Age of Noah, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Kings. Now, it’s important to remember that these ages are rather arbitrary. They were sketched out by St Augustine as a teaching method to tell the story of the Bible, with the Six Ages of the World echoing the Six Days of Creation.

On this, our last vespers service before Holy Week, we begin with the Fifth Age of the World, which covers the time between the Return of God’s people Israel from their Exile and the advent of the Messiah some 500 years later. The Fifth Age is one of my favorites, in part because there is so little of it in the Bible. It’s what we call the Intertestamental Period, the centuries between the closing of the Old Testament—that is, the Hebrew Scriptures—and the penning of the New.

A lot happens in that gap. Most notably, the Greeks show up. Alexander of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, comes in like a wrecking ball, conquering Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and India—in short, the whole of the known world. Israel gets swept up in the tide. The Exiles came home from Babylon speaking Aramaic, but by the time of the New Testament we find everything written in Greek. Indeed, we might well name this the Age of Alexander.

So strong is the pull of Greek culture that a civil war breaks out in Israel, between those who would remain loyal to the traditions and Covenants of their ancestors on the one hand, and those who would assimilate and become Greek on the other. This clash is recorded in the Books of the Maccabees, which may be found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but not often in Protestant ones, which is unfortunate. The Israelites triumphed, by the way, briefly setting up an independent kingdom, their first in centuries. And the holiday celebrating this victory is, of course, Hanukkah.

The Greeks can be tenacious, however, and in order to keep them at bay, the Israelites allied themselves to a new and rising power from the West: Rome. As it ends up, this is akin to shooting yourself in the head in order to cure a headache. Once they had their foot in the door, the Romans took over the entire Middle East, Greek and Jew alike. If there’s one thing Rome hates, it’s disorder. And the most effective way that Romans found to establish and maintain order was to make everything Rome. In Israel they eventually set up a puppet-king named Herod.

So if you’ve ever read through the Bible and found yourself wondering how the Old Testament ends with happy Hebrews heading home, while the New begins with everybody speaking Greek and grumbling about the Romans, now you know. There are Greek books of the Old Testament that cover much of this gap, but as I mentioned, they’re rarely found in Protestant Bibles. Luther, however, said we ought to study them, and I happen to concur. Read the Apocrypha. It’s good stuff.

The Sixth Age of the World is inaugurated by the birth of Jesus. It is the Age of Christmas, the Age of the Messiah. In Jesus, all the promises given by God to His people—from the prophecy of the crushed serpent in Genesis, to the messianic visions of the Prophets in Exile—are now at last fulfilled. On the Sixth Day of Creation, God fashioned humanity in His own image as the capstone of Creation. In the Sixth Age of the World, God brings about His New Creation in this New Adam, Jesus. We are all of us given new birth in the New Covenant.

With Jesus’ Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, God pours out His own Life for the life of the world. With His Ascension and the sending of His Holy Spirit, Jesus draws all people to Himself and makes us one in Him: one in Spirit, one in Body, one in Blood. We live now in the Sixth Age, the Age of Christ and of His Body the Church.

Every year the Christmas Proclamation reminds us of our Lord’s birth “in the 194th Olympiad; the 752nd year from the founding of Rome; the 42nd year of the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus; in the Sixth Age of the World, when all the earth was at peace.” Now you know why we call it the Sixth Age—even if that peace was the infamous Pax Romana.

Yet even as we end this Lenten homily series, let us recall that the Six Days of Creation culminated in the Sabbath, the day of holy rest. Likewise the Six Ages of the World look forward to the seventh, the Age of the world to come, when Christ shall return in glory and God at last will be all in all. Then shall every tear be dried, and every wound healed, and all the dead restored to life. The word we commonly translate as eternal is in fact aeonian, which means of the Age, that is, the Age of the world to come, the Age of God’s Sabbath rest.

The End of the World doesn’t mean that the world suddenly stops. Rather, it means that in Christ the world reaches its end, its purpose, its intended and perfected fulfilment.

God is still working out His New Creation in and through the person of Jesus Christ. As we are joined to Christ in Word and Sacrament, we are graciously made agents in His redemption of this world. We are to be Jesus for the sake of the cosmos. Someday this Age will close. Someday all sorrows shall draw to their end, and the new Age at last begin. Until then, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

As Through Fire

Propers: The Fifth Sunday in Lent, A.D. 2018 B


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

If we as Lutherans make a mistake when it comes to salvation, it’s that we speak of it too legalistically. And I know that may sound counterintuitive, because Lutheranism was in many ways a reaction against legalism in the Church.

Salvation, in Luther’s day, had become a transaction. If you wanted to be saved, there was a ladder to climb, a checklist to follow. You had to do A, B, and C. You had to earn forgiveness, earn your place in Heaven. And this proved very profitable for the middlemen along the way. The papacy of Luther’s time has been described, somewhat uncharitably, as a Pez dispenser, spitting out indulgences for the right price. Rich Italians built grand basilicas on the backs of the German poor.

And Luther was among those voices who said that this was blasphemy. This was a perversion of the Gospel. We don’t earn salvation. Heaven isn’t for sale. We are sinners, plain and simple. We cannot hope to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace. But that’s the thing with grace: it is unmerited. It is pure mercy, pure gift. Jesus loves you and forgives you and asks only that we then pass on this same love, this same forgiveness, to others, like a cup overflowing with richest wine.

The Lutheran concern was for poor souls stricken by the knowledge of their own sins and thus terrified by God’s wrath, forever striving in futility to earn the approval of the world’s sternest father figure. Luther knew what that was like. His own father was no peach, and so the notion of God as Father gave him no peace. It wasn’t until Luther himself had children that he realized the fathomless depths of a father’s love.

And Luther’s message to poor sinners was not that our sins aren’t so bad—indeed our sins are terrible, and have terrible consequences for all those around us—but rather that for as wicked as we are, God’s love for us is infinitely greater, infinitely stronger: stronger than the devil, the world, and the flesh; stronger even than the grave and the deepest pits of hell!

It was meant to be Good News. It was meant to be the joy of everlasting salvation tasted here on earth. And many took it as such, thanks be to God.

But there were others who still thought of this purely in legal terms, and so took Luther’s message of salvation by grace as license for ever worsening sin. As far as they were concerned, Christ had given them a get-out-of-jail-free card. All things were now pure for the pure! So go ahead and lie, cheat, steal, break up your neighbor’s family, murder someone in a back alley; it’s okay! We are all saved by grace through faith, right? Any sin can be forgiven.

But salvation isn’t just about freedom from consequence. It’s more visceral than that, more real. Salvation is about death and resurrection. God doesn’t accept us warts and all. That’s not mercy. That’s not love. Rather, God sees us as He intends for us to be: perfect, sinless, and holy.

In short, God looks at us and sees Jesus, His own Son, who is at once both truly God and truly Man—humanity perfected! And the mercy of God, the grace of God, is to draw us into ever deeper union with Jesus, making us one in Him, conforming us to the Son of God so that we might become sons of God ourselves, reclaiming the inheritance of who and whose we truly are. God’s mercy is that He purifies us, as a smith refines silver in the furnace, when we could not and cannot purify ourselves.

Let me put it another way. You don’t want a doctor who says that you’re okay no matter what, who encourages you to drink and smoke and indulge to excess because he’s going to write you a clean bill of health no matter how messed up you really are. Rather, you want a skilled, honest, compassionate physician who will properly diagnose your disease and work as hard as he can to restore you to wholeness and health. The quack makes life easy, but true health is hard work.

When Jesus first begins His ministry, He goes around forgiving people willy-nilly. Your sins are forgiven, your sins are forgiven, everybody’s sins are forgiven. And this gets Him in trouble, because only God can forgive sins against God. Yet if salvation were limited to legalism, to getting your paperwork in order and the proper stamp on your passport, then His work would already be done, right? He declares our sins forgiven and goes on home to see what Mary’s made for dinner.

But salvation is more than a checkmark. Sin runs too deep for that. It must be rooted out from the depths of every human heart, from the very heart of the world. And that will take a love that runs even deeper than our sin, a love so overwhelming and self-sacrificial that it will entail unimaginable suffering—because the two are inextricable. Real love always requires suffering, because real love is the willful choice to give of yourself for another. And that hurts. God, it hurts. Just ask a parent, or anyone with a broken heart.

This is why the New Covenant prophesied by Jeremiah in our readings this morning will not be like the Old Covenant, which was spoken, and external. The New Covenant will be within us, written on our hearts, because God is going to pour Himself out into us, pour out His Life and His Breath and His Blood into us, into our wounds, into our hearts and our minds and our souls.

And there will be no escaping His mercy, His suffering, His love—because it won’t just be a word on a page or a voice in a pulpit. It will be God Himself hung on a tree, pouring out His own Life into the life of the world. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Christ proclaims! Not off in some distant future, not hidden in the pages of Revelation. The Judgment of the world is Christ on the Cross. There we see the true horror and depth of our sin. And there we see the unspeakable ocean of God’s mercy and grace and love drowning us in our brokenness, purging us of our evil, and raising us to new life in Christ. The New Covenant doesn’t proclaim us forgiven; it remakes us forgiven.

God is not content to welcome us into Heaven twisted and crippled by our sin. Such would not be mercy. Such would not be Heaven! If we were wicked forever, surrounded by others who would be wicked forever, that would be hell, and the presence of God would only highlight the agony of our sins. Out must Satan go, every hair and feather! Only then will we be fit for Heaven. Only then we will know the salvation of our God. And this is not something we can earn. This is not something we can do. Rather, this is what Christ does in us, in our flesh and in our bone, drowning us each day to sin and raising us to life in Him.

It is a process. It is a struggle. Just as the blacksmith must return the iron to the fire again and again, so must God purge us of all impurities, shaping us to fit the task, breaking down what doesn’t work to make us stronger than we were—until at last one day we are as one with the fire, bright and hot and pure. And the fire is no longer pain to us. It is no longer our purgation. Rather it is our life and our beauty and our everlasting joy. That is salvation. That is the mercy of God.

And so I say to you, dear Christians, that we have been saved, that we are being saved, and that we hope one day to be saved. We are on the earliest steps of a hero’s journey. We have been granted a destiny in Christ more wondrous than any we could imagine here below. And this life, this whole life, is our pilgrimage to our true and only home.

The day will come when each of us will blaze forth in the reflected glory of God, shining out for all the universe to see, forged at last into what we were each meant to be from before the beginning of the world. And I for one cannot wait to see what on earth we will look like when our salvation is at last complete.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Orpheus Failed

Propers: Good Friday, A.D. 2018 B


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


There’s no escaping it. There’s no avoiding it. The wages of sin are death.

This isn’t a threat, by the way. I’m not into scared-straight sermons. If anything, it’s axiomatic. Death isn’t a thing; it isn’t a skeleton with a scythe. Death is not real in and of itself. Death is simply an absence, a void, the lack of life. And life is so much more than biology. Life is union with God, union with the Good and the True and the Beautiful. God is the Source of life—He is Life itself—and the Source of our being, because He is Being itself.

Sin is separation from God, separation from life and being and truth. Thus, the wages of sin are death. Pull away, and we make a void. That void is our death.

It’s the thing we all face, yet the thing we all hate. No one escapes death, yet we treat it as the most unnatural thing in the world—and in a sense it is. Our yearning for immortality, our inborn abhorrence of death, even a good death, makes a sort of sense. It points us toward a greater reality, a greater destiny. Yet we can’t seem to make it there. We can’t figure out how to fill the hole we’ve cut through the heart of the world, the chasm that separates us from Life.

In ancient Greece, one of the most infamous cults was that of the Orphic Mysteries. And this was based upon the myth of Orpheus, whose music was said to be unbearably sublime. No one was immune to his charms, not even the animals or the rocks. His wife Eurydice, whom Orpheus loved with all his heart, would dance ecstatically to her husband’s music—until one day her dancing led her to tread upon a viper, which sunk envenomed fangs deep into her flesh.

Thus did the joy of Orpheus turn to sorrow, and his mourning into song. And the sadness of that song shook the very heavens, causing the powers of earth and sky to weep, until the gods of Olympus impelled him to journey to the underworld to bring his beloved Eurydice home again, alive again. And his music charmed the dog that guarded Hades’ gate. And it charmed the Lord and Lady of the dead, who gave him permission to lead his wife’s soul back to life.

Their only condition was this: that Orpheus could not look back, could not look upon his beloved, until they had returned to the light of day. He must play and lead her back to life, never once glancing back until their journey was complete. And as he ascended, playing his heavenly tune, doubt began to gnaw at him. He feared that Hades had deceived him. He feared that his wife was not behind him.

And so as Orpheus reached the threshold of the portal back to life, he could hold back no longer but turned—only to catch one fleeting glimpse of Eurydice’s spirit, before she vanished back into the darkness. Orpheus failed.

His was the height of human art, the height of music, the height of beauty. His was all the skill a man could muster in heart and mind and hand. The very powers of nature bowed before him—yet he could not save the one he loved. Not from death. Not from the grave. None of us can.

Such would be the story of all humankind, had not another come forth to face death, to free His beloved from the tyranny of the grave. This One did not seek to charm death with gentle notes, but to seize it in a death-grip, to pull it in upon itself, nothing upon nothing, thus to fill that bottomless chasm torn by our sin full now to bursting with the Breath and Blood and Life of God!

Make no mistake: this is what Good Friday is. This is not the nameless execution of one more would-be Christ, the routine elimination of a troublemaker who sought to disturb the ruling might of Rome. No! For this Man, this hapless victim, this so-called Christ, is in fact the God of all Creation come down swaddled in the flesh! He is Being itself walking about on two legs. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Light of the world born into darkness.

And what do you think happens when you drop infinite Being into nothing’s abyss? What happens when unlimited Life falls headlong into the depthless halls of death? What happens when a Light that is the Source of all light that ever was or is or even could be now blazes forth into the very heart of darkness?

It is a paradox! Life embraces death; Being embraces nothing; and the nothing ceases to exist! Because there is no darkness where there is Light. There is no death where there is Life. There is no hell where there is Christ! He defeats it, He crushes it, He harrows it, for it is as nothing before Him! The whole kingdom of Satan is a lie, and it scatters like roaches before the Light, like shadows before the Sun. Christ has conquered death and hell! And He has found Orpheus and Eurydice waiting for Him to come.

It looks to all the world as though Satan has won, because the Son of God came to save the human race, and for His trouble we nailed Him to the Cross like a gutted stag in a tree. We were His beloved, and we pulled Him down to death. But the devil has no idea what he has swallowed down this night. And Hades, dear Christians—well, Hades doesn’t have a prayer.

Behold the Cross with which He conquers hell.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.