Ultimate Authority

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Pentecost II – 10 June 2012

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, II Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1, Mark 3:20-35

From the Book of Genesis:
Confronting Adam with his trespass, having eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam defended himself saying, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. Then Eve defended herself with these words, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

From St. Paul’s 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians:
Speaking of eternal life, the apostle wrote, For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Jesus said, Truly…all sins will be forgiven…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness…

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

Many of you may remember the heady and tumultuous days of the late 60s and well into the 70s when theologians could make a name for themselves simply by being the most obnoxious spokesman for the latest challenge to the Truth of the Gospel. Sadly, this trend continued well into the 80s and early 90s – and still continues today in many academic and church circles.

This challenge represents one of the major reasons why our churches have so dramatically declined over the past 40 to 50 years. People placed their faith in the challenge and abandoned the Truth. Although this abandonment of Truth does not look like it in the surface, it amounts to the most egregious sin of all sins – a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit being the Spirit of Truth. Without Him, forgiveness is impossible.

As is always the case, serious sin rarely looks like the evil that it is. Challenges to the Gospel often pass as expressions of a keen intellect, of a perceptive mind, or of great intelligence or profound insight or exceptional wisdom. They are not. In fact, they’re usually just the opposite. Generally such challenges only make a name for the challenger, giving him or her a type of celebrity status in pseudo-intellectual circles and causing those weak in faith to weaken further. This results in identifying evil as good, lies as truth and damnation as salvation.

Well, in those not so good old days one popular challenger was a man named Harvey Cox – a Professor of Divinity at both Andover Newton Theological School and Harvard Divinity School. For all of his populist challenges he actually did get some things right although he usually contaminated what he got right with the pollution of Marxism, social action masquerading as Christen mission and redistributionist, economic sociology presented as obedience to the second commandment – to love thy neighbor as thyself.

One of the things he did get right – at least mostly right – was his analysis of the original trespass in the Garden published in a little book that he wrote entitled, On Not Leaving It To the Snake. You will remember that God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But they did.

When God confronts Adam, he blames the woman. When God confronts the woman, she blames the snake. You see, in each case they blame someone or something else for their wrongdoing. They gave authority to someone or something other than to God, the only – the exclusive – the perfect and most certainly the ultimate authority. Only God Himself is worthy of absolute obedience.

Now, when Adam and Eve obeyed the snake, they gave ultimate authority to a creature lesser than themselves – lower, if you will, on the evolutionary scale. (I am using the term advisedly.) Now, that misses the point since the poor old snake did not tempt Adam and Eve to sin. Satan, disguised as the snake – Satan, who possessed the snake – offered the temptation – he, and not the snake, beguiled Eve and she wrongly obeyed. Adam followed her bad example.

But the moral to the story that Cox points out is mostly accurate. We must never leave our moral decision making to powers of a lower nature but rather, take responsibility for our own decisions and act accordingly. Now that’s the moral that I took away from the little book. But Cox then goes on to use this noble sentiment for the glorification of Marxism.

So, what happened here? Cox glorified an inferior claim to truth – the writings of Karl Marx – proven inferior because every time Marxist socialism is implemented, it fails – every time! – and abandoned or compromised the ultimate Truth who is God Himself – God the Holy Spirit. Looks like this might be a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And that it is.

The most important aspect in the account of the original trespass is that Adam and Eve obeyed a lesser authority. The sin is first disobedience and then the failure to take personal responsibility. Disobedience to God is the primary offense.

The crucial question is always this – Is The One True God your God or have you put something or someone else in His place as the ultimate authority in your life? That’s the question. And the answer can be dreadful; in fact, fatal.

Following the theme of obedience to a lesser life form we hear this frequently from atheists who claim that human beings are just animals and therefore obedient to their own built instincts. Such belief reduces or eliminates the possibility of moral accountability.

The church has clearly identified these forces that can operate as almost instinctual. Notice that I said almost – we as human beings are not subject to our instincts as are other animals. These almost instinctual forces are the forces behind the seven deadly sins – wrath, greed, sloth or laziness, pride or arrogance, lust, envy and gluttony. When one gives consent to any of these powers – and becomes obedient – one most certainly sins.

Examples of sin abound. I will mention just two this morning – two not frequently cited primarily because they are not as exciting as some of the others but are just as deadly as any other force operative in the unredeemed soul. The two are envy and sloth. And the example that I will cite is not generally talked about for the same reason – not all that exciting. But deadly indeed!

I motioned that Harvey Cox adapted the account of the original trespass to the principles of Marxism, Marxism being the classic form of the socialist / communist economic philosophy and theory. He, as well as so many others of his generation, participated and proclaimed what was called the Christian / Marxist dialogue in an effort to reconcile theistic Christianity with atheistic Marxism.

They failed. Or rather, they succeeded. Which is it – failure of success? Actually, both. They failed in reconciliation but succeeded in massive corruption of Christianity – one that continues today with devastating consequences. It’s called the social gospel or liberation theology.

The failure of this social effort results when people remain faithful to the One True God. If so, they will reject all other authorities for in their faithfulness they will discern the evil and the deception.

But the success came and comes by those who believe that we can make up the Christian faith as we go along – that simply by liking or admiring Jesus Christ, we’re Christians and as such can then believe whatever we want or whatever serves our purposes. This, in and of itself, easily – effortlessly – grows into a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

The true Christian does not just like or even love Jesus Christ but loves Him as the crucified and risen Incarnation of God and obeys Him in all things. Being an admirer is, in and of itself, insufficient. Jesus Christ, 100% divine and 100% human – is not merely a great teacher, a nice guy, a good example of what it means to be human or even a miracle worker who can cast out demons. Although all of these things, He was – and is – and will be forever – God made Man who destroyed the powers of sin and death. But I am ahead of myself.

Back to the sins of envy and sloth. All socialist theory is based on envy – class envy. Envy, or covetousness,
is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment – Thou shalt not covet anything that belongs to thy neighbor. In socialism, covetousness functions as a righteous motive. One guy has more that I have. I want what he’s got. I am equally entitled to have it. It’s my right. So I will take it. Or so the thinking goes. Class envy results in class warfare. Envy, rooted in arrogance, blossoms into theft and murder.

Jesus taught the opposite. The deadly sins function as demonic forces in our lives. Envy would be one of the demons to be cast out of every life.

Sloth is envy’s kissing cousin or even fraternal twin sister. Sloth is the force behind the notion of entitlement – that one is entitled to anything or everything that anyone else may have by some kind of inherent right. Working to achieve something or to improve one’s life plays little or no role in accomplishing an otherwise noble ambition – when that ambition comes under the Lordship of Christ.

Well, when all is said and done, the Truth – God’s Truth – personified in the Holy Spirit – always prevails. But not automatically. Sadly, deception rules the day for all too long and such great evil results before the Truth wins.

God created us for His Truth. St. Paul assumes this in his Epistle to the Corinthians- a place in which all of the deadly sins abounded. He instructed them – and continues to instruct us – that everything in this life is an earthly tent – something that will disappear. But God has built for us an eternal home in the heavens that cannot be destroyed.

God created us for eternity. But the bad guy attempts to steal us away. God’s intention is clear. He created us for heaven – not for hell. This assumption underlies all of St. Paul’s writings. And he is, of course, correct in his assumption.

Right from the beginning, the bad guy sought – and continues to seek – to divert us. Hence, he beguiled Eve – and Adam followed. Everyone repeats their original sin all the time. Only faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ can reverse that process.

Faith in the saving grace of God delivers us from all the unhappiness and misery of this world – all the sin and death – and offers us joy and holiness in the eternal life lived in the house that God has built for us. Jesus said, In my Father’s house are many mansions – well there’s a mansion there with your name of the front door. Taking occupancy depends upon just one thing – faith in the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind.

Hence, as believers, knowing that none of us ever has perfect faith but must depend upon our Lord’s saving grace, we can cast out the demons that can take possession of our hearts, our minds our bodies or our souls.

We can rise above all lesser powers and give ourselves to the perfect power of the One Holy God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Acknowledging Him as the ultimate authority in our lives wins the day – wins all the days – wins eternity. When He takes possession of our souls, we can take possession of our eternal homes.

Simple as that.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, grant us the grace to give ourselves to you every day that we live. Deliver us from beguiling deceptions and charming deceivers. Fill us with the power of your Holy Spirit that His Truth may rule in our living. And, we pray, that by your grace, you will bring us into eternal life in your heavenly home.
We ask this in Christ’s name,

Miracle and Paradox

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Trinity Sunday – Pentecost I – 3 June 2012
The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-13

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
The prophet relates his glorious vision and concludes with these words; Woe is me! for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. And a seraphim, having burned Isaiah’s lips with a coal taken from the altar of the heavenly temple said, Lo, …thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged.

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
The apostle wrote, When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, … and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

And from the Gospel According to St. John:
Speaking to Nicodemis, a Pharisee and a secret admirer of our Lord, Jesus said, Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. and unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

Every time I write a sermon, I do so painfully aware of the religious context in which we live here in New England. More specifically, in this part of the country, the Christian church in all of its denominations is weak, poorly attended, poorly supported and often ridiculed. Believing Christians are seen as synonymous with both ignorance and stupidity while the de facto religion of political correctness – to which both ignorant and stupid might very well apply – is honored and glorified. Why are our churches empty? What have done to the faith, once so strongly supported in New England that now attracts so few participants?

Part of the answer is most certainly the making of our churches into fellowships – human fellowships. These human fellowships – or better expressed – humanistic fellowships – have replaced the church as the one institution that has as its primary purpose the proper worship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We focus on the horizontal dimension of good fellowship with each other rather than on the vertical dimension of Holy Communion with God. Good fellowship with each other is great. But the purpose of worship is absolutely NOT each other – its focus must be entirely on God and our relationship with Him.

Worship, the church’s primary function – its reason for being – has virtually disappeared as an awesome, powerful, transcending and holy experience. Rather we now have a celebration of ourselves.

It’s no wonder that so many of our church are dying. And they must die. As they do, we, of course, pray for resurrection. But if our churches continue to be self-indulgent institutions of self-glorification, then they will die. And they should.

Keep this in mind as we shift gears to talk about this morning’s lessons.

If I had to select the three most important books of the Bible, I would choose the three from which we read this morning – Isaiah, The Epistle to the Romans and St. John’s Gospel. I would select these three over all the others because they proclaim salvation more completely, more eloquently and more beautifully than any of the others. It’s not that the others are not important – they most certainly are. Every one of them offers the divine revelation. But Isaiah, Romans and St. John’s Gospel inspire and uplift the soul in ways that none of the others can do.

Surely one of the most inspiring and most beautiful passages in all of Scripture is the sixth chapter of Isaiah. In this account of the prophet’s heavenly vision, he sees God the Father enthroned in the heavenly temple surrounded by the six-winged seraphim and other astounding creatures.

He speaks of these magnificent angelic beings praising God so powerfully calling out one to another, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory – they sing so loudly that the foundations of the thresholds tremble as if from an earthquake and the throne room is filled with the smoke of the incense from the sacrificial altars. So powerful was this vision that the prophet exclaimed, Woe is me, I am undone!

The apostle Paul’s masterpiece, the Epistle to the Romans, expresses better than any other writing in the Bible or, for that matter, in any other commentary or piece of literature of any sort, the mystery and miracle – yes miracle – of our salvation in and through Jesus Christ. No one else, at any time or in any place, proclaims the miracle and paradox of salvation so eloquently as does St. Paul in this letter as he navigates between law and grace, fear and love, condemnation and mercy, sin and salvation. He sails those tumultuous seas and carries us along in his ship of faith to the best understanding we can have of the divine paradox given in the saving miracle.

Notice I said to the best understanding we can have. Those words are important. We cannot understand the miracle of God’s saving sacrifice. It transcends human intelligence. Every effort to figure this out can only go just so far.

For those who have to understand before they believe, they will never believe or understand. For those who believe, well, they understand enough to know that God’s wisdom so far transcends ours, that everything that we do amounts to foolishness. His ways are not our ways. Simple as that. But by faith, we can understand our own limitations. Accepting those limitations allows us to soar far above ourselves and into the heavenly courts into which Isaiah could see in his vision.

Isaiah’s visionary journey into the heavenly Temple left the man undone. Some translations have ruined, lost or broken. Whatever the word, I wonder how often anyone might have such a powerful encounter with the holy in any of our churches. I fear never. Many will get a warm and fuzzy feeling but never an experience of God that breaks us apart. And we have to break apart in order to be rebuilt. Dare I say, reborn?

The same applies to God’s Truth – that’s always with a capital “T”. His truth is paradox. We mere mortals prefer things to fall into clear-cut categories of thought and experience. But the transcendent God can only condescend just so much. He is who He is.

His very nature is paradox. Being three in one and one in three – being the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – each person distinct from the other yet perfectly unified into one great, holy, pure, creative, redeeming, re-creative and saving power – well that’s too much for our limited minds to understand. And again, by faith we can see that Truth. Without faith, we believe in deception.

The Savior Himself – God the Son – is a further paradox. He was – and is – and will be forever fully human and fully divine at the same time. He has to be both in order to save. Divinity fully alive in humanity – well that’s the only way that we can truly know God; that’s the only way that the powers of sin and death can meet defeat. The divine Son must die so that death dies. None of us can understand that. We can only bear witness to it. Only God can save us. And only God made man can accomplish it. Only God can rise from the dead – and raise us up with Him.

St. Paul bears such a witness. He helps us to understand to the best of anyone’s ability. But, at the end of the day, we cannot fully understand (we see as through a glass darkly). What we do know is this – that in Jesus Christ and by virtue of His saving sacrifice – by virtue of His broken Body and shed Blood, we become the children of God and heirs to eternal life. We’re not born that way. We do not achieve that status. We can only receive it as a gift. Again, a miracle and a paradox.

The Gospel According to St. John comes across differently than do the gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. John writes from a perspective of intimacy, of Holy Spiritual insight and of holy love. He was the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one closest to the Lord, and was present to hear even the private, agonizing prayers offered in the Garden on the night of betrayal. He – and he alone – among all of the other disciples – stood with Jesus at His trial, conviction, crucifixion and entombment. And he, with St. Peter, was the first of the twelve to witness the empty tomb after the resurrection.

But for all of the closeness, for all of the familiarity – for all of the personal accounts of the events in Jesus’ life, the pathos of His death and the glory of His resurrection, St. John never presents the Lord as a good buddy or just one of the guys with whom one might hang out. However friendly and casual they might have been on a day today basis, Jesus remained the Lord.

Although Jesus, fully divine, shared our human nature – and did so fully in every way – there remained a gigantic difference. He never sinned. Everyone else did and does. He did not. Paradox. Fully human but without sin.

Hence, He taught Nicodemus, His disciples and us that we must be born again in order to both see and enter the Kingdom of God. This rebirth comes in and through the power of the Holy Spirit alive in the individual. It comes through authentic, sincere and genuine baptism with water – the water representing the water that flowed with the blood from Jesus’ side as the centurion pierced Him. As He died on the cross to defeat death, so we die in the sacramental holy water so that we can live forever in, by and through Him. Miracle and paradox.

We loose when we try to diminish God by perceiving Him as just one of us. He’s not. He becomes one of us only to lift us up so that we can be one with Him. This union never assumes equality. Even God the Son did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped to quote St. Paul. Hence, we should not make that mistake. But it does assume perfect and holy communion between God and His children.

St. John, as well as St. Paul and the prophet Isaiah, present God the Father, and the Son and or the Holy Spirit in hugely respectful terms – sometimes majestic – sometimes familiar – but never so common, so folksy or in any such a way as to even suggest a vulgarity as we have seen from time to time in our culture. Never do they speak of the Lord as if they were speaking of anyone other than God Himself.

None of these inspired and called men attempted to bring God down to our level. Rather they seek to lift us up to God’s level. God the Father, came down to us of His own accord and by His own intention. We did not bring Him down, he came down – condescended to our human condition to redeem and save – not to socialize.

Neither Isaiah, nor Paul nor John ever claims that our salvation is anything other than a miracle. Truly, if you cannot believe in miracle, you cannot believe in the One True God. Miracle is His modus operandi.

We work in science and technology, logic and reason, emotion and feeling. None of these human methods can save. None of them can bring us the living Truth who is the Holy Spirit. The best we can do is relative truth that changes with each new discovery or insight. And even that quality of truth, such as it is comes as a divine revelation as well. All truth belongs to and comes from Him. Anything that claims truth and is not comes from below.

The eternal, redeeming, saving and living Truth who is God the Holy Spirit calls us into His paradox of miraculous power that allows for is to be born again so that we can see and enter the eternal Kingdom of heaven. God the Father sent God the Son to accomplish this on the cross. God the Holy Spirit continues with us until God the Son returns again to claim His people, take His power and reign.

Until that great day, a day of judgment for those who do not believe, He nurtures and sustains us in this great and miraculous Sacrament of Eternal Life in which we experience Holy Communion with Him. This is not in any way a fellowship meal with each other. It is supremely – and exclusively – communion with God.

So come to this sacred table as the children that the loving Father has saved. Come as heirs, not to lay claim to anything that belongs to us as an entitlement, but rather to receive it as a gift, remembering the suffering from which came – and comes – the glory. And receive the gift by faith with thanksgiving.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, deliver us from ourselves. Open our minds to the paradox of your Truth and our hearts to the reception of your saving mercy. Come alive is us that we may continually be born again in you, that by grace received in the True faith, we may live forever. We ask this in the name of your Son, our only Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord.