The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Pentecost XVII – 23 September 2012
Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13 – 4:3, Mark 9:30-37
From the Book of the Prophet, Jeremiah:
Jeremiah laments, thou didst show me their evil deeds, But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter….let me see thy vengeance upon them, for to thee have I committee my cause.
From the Letter of St. James:
Continuing in his discussion of faith and works using the example of Abraham, he wrote, You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works…. faith apart from works is dead. And Who is wise among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in humility…
And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Jesus asked his disciples what they were discussing as they traveled to Capernaum saying, What were you discussing on the way? But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. Jesus said, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.
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,
I know that I am stating the obvious when I say that often, it’s often really hard to understand the Scriptures. That’s why we have theologians and Biblical scholars in endless debate over the centuries, why we need a properly educated clergy trained in Scripture, the history of interpretation – the fancy word for that is hermeneutics – and in church history to see how previous generations of Christians have applied Biblical teaching to the various circumstances of their lives.
It’s why all of us must study our Bibles – both alone and in groups – to learn as much as we can about our faith and religion as well as check our interpretation over and against those who hold a different viewpoint. We may be convinced of our understanding only to discover that someone else, from a different perspective opens to us another level of meaning and appreciation bringing us closer to the Truth.
One thing that we must always remember when we read the Bible is that we need to approach the Old Testament from the standpoint of the New – for the New fulfills the Old as the Old bears witness to the New – and then understand the New Testament from the perspective of the Gospels – and all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is, of course, the Spirit of Truth.
The danger is always to interpret according to own wants and needs, adapting the Scriptures to a preconceived faith – a faith formed not by divine revelation but by the popular culture and self-interest.
Jesus challenged this tendency in the Sermon on the Mount – the highest and best instruction given anywhere by anyone regarding authentic holiness and true righteousness. The sermon sets holiness over self interest – counterintuitive to human nature.
From the earliest days of the church, the faithful have debated our Lord’s teachings found in that greatest of all sermons. Jesus instructs us that we should bless those who persecute us. Instead of the Old Testament admonition of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and even a life for a life, Jesus calls us to the higher righteousness. St. Paul continues in that righteousness when he wrote, repay no man evil for evil.
St. Paul lived most of his adult life under some kind of persecution. He practiced what he preached. He never gave in to his critics. Jesus said, Blessed are the peace makers. The temptation is not to make peace on God’s terms but to keep the peace by giving in to the loudest voice, the most popular notion or to the one who makes the strongest threat. St. Paul never did that. He always stood his ground, keeping the faith as he attempted to make the peace – not keep the peace. A big difference.
St. James set the same example. He, Like Paul, most certainly had his critics. He would have been more popular had he gone along with the notion that so long as you claimed faith in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord and savior who died for your sins, then you could do anything you wanted to do be that living a licentious life or indulging in the cultural religion of the times – Roman paganism – or simply living selfishly without concern for those in need.
St. James continually challenged the prevailing wisdom, sometimes called the conventional wisdom or the spirit of the times or the spirit of the age. Never does that wisdom – regardless of how we identify it – come from above. Generally, it comes from precisely the opposite direction.
He told his people – and tells us – that faith was – and is – essential but unless it shows in how we live, in good works including service to others in legitimate need and in another category of good works – acts of authentic piety – then the faith is just a show of pietism. He instructed, Faith without works is dead.
He underscored our Lord’s teaching when Jesus questioned His disciples regarding their conversation on the road to Capernaum. They were debating who would hold first place in the coming kingdom – an obvious example of self-interest.
But Jesus instructed them that in the kingdom, if anyone would be first, he must be last – and the servant of all. This calls for humility, for transcending our self-interest and for looking at our lives – what we say – what we do and who we are – from God’s perspective rather than our own. Not easy. Again, counter-intuitive. But when God holds first place in our loves as demonstrated by humble obedience to His will, and then the issue of first place falls away in importance. We share in His kingdom and that’s more than enough.
Good works are not just acts of genuine charity but also include honoring the Lord in what we say, in dedicated worship on the Lord’s Day – even f it’s inconvenient, in continual prayer as well as in the aforementioned helpfulness to others.
Keep this in mind as we shift gears for a moment.
In our generation when we, as Christians, as well as Jews are being persecuted in the Middle East, many seem to think, that being faithful to our Lord somehow means giving in, apologizing for our faith and values, or somehow accommodating the evil being perpetuated as if by so doing, they will like us and be good to us.
Although Jesus calls us to the higher righteousness, He never allows us to accommodate, compromise with, surrender to, honor or glorify evil.
Evil never turns good. It deserves no honor. But powerfully, unapologetic, unashamed – and good – men and women of true faith, believing in and living God’s Truth can change the lives of many caught up in evil but who, deep down inside, seek the good. Trust me when I say, evil itself never changes. But presented with the Good News of our salvation, people can – and do change when they see the alternative clearly. This requires that the True Gospel – unadulterated by the spirit of the times – must be proclaimed – powerfully.
A personal note. As I draw closer to my retirement, I have become increasingly reflective. I look back, especially at the earlier days of my ministry and wish that I had been bolder in my proclamation of the Gospel.
There was a time when I accommodated the erroneous belief that all religions share in a spiritual and moral equivalence and that all lead to the same God. I speak about this frequently because I encounter it all the time. I fear that far too many of us either endorse it or fail to challenge it with the exceptional uniqueness of Christianity over and above all other religions.
We do this because we want the approval of others, we want acceptance and we like to think of ourselves – and have others think of us – that we are open minded, tolerant and inclusive. We put their approval in first place.
Any serious study of the various faiths and religions popular today – or in any other day and age – will demonstrate the unique holiness of Christianity as the one true faith. It’s not that we as Christian are superior – we are not. We remain sinners just like everyone else. But we worship a superior God.
How can anyone say that everyone worships the same God when some honor and glorify their god by beheading those of other religions – and do it in obedience to the will of that god. They believe that such horrendous brutality – pure evil – constitutes holiness. In so doing, they get a reward from their false god. They by-pass judgment and go directly to paradise. Christ forbids anything like this vicious behavior. And Jesus Christ is God.
We all know the account of Abraham, whom St. James references in his letter, who fully believed that God wanted him to sacrifice his son Isaac as proof of his own faith. He was willing to do so if God had commanded. But the One True God said Do not kill the boy.
Abraham became the father of many nations for his faithfulness – a faithfulness that always held God in first place. Yet another religion claims that God allows for or even demands the stoning of a disobedient wife, mother, sister or daughter – as well as an errant son. So help me God, we do not worship the same God!
Well, how do we our Lord’s teachings when we find ourselves in a hostile situation when someone may be threatening the lives of our children, our wives or husbands, our mothers or fathers, our closest friends or of anyone whom we hold dear – or even our own life? Under those circumstances, how do we bless someone who has killed a loved one – or an enemy as in war – that threatens everything including our faith and religion?
The church has historically taught that when in a situation of self-defense, we both can and should do just that – defend ourselves even if it means taking another life. In no way, though, are we to seek or take vengeance. God lays claim to vengeance. Scripture is clear on this – vengeance is mine saith the Lord. That means that if someone murders your child, you do not then murder his; a common practice in ancient times.
That’s why Christian societies – underline Christian – have always sought over the ages to establish a fair system of justice recognizing the right that anyone accused deserves a fair trial. Justice must be served – but vengeance must not take hold.
When it does, we put ourselves in God’s place. He forbids that. First place belongs to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and to no one and to nothing else. If the Truth be told, all the evil in the world arises when we put ourselves or some else or something else in first place – the place belonging exclusively to God.
First place means that in all conditions of life, we give to God all the honor – all the glory and all the power. We know that He has the power. Yet the way He uses that power may frustrate us. We may want Him to use it on our terms. But as our Lord said to His Father in the garden, Not my will but thine be done.
The prophet, Jeremiah, who lived under constant derision, rejection and threat to his life, often lamented his plight. In bouts of self-pity, he wanted vengeance. He was an angry man – as were all the prophets who could see the evil in this world from God’s perspective. Yet even in his lamentable condition, he adjusted his attitude and his behavior to fulfill his divine vocation. He never gave in to that evil. God held first place in Jeremiah’s life.
All of this comes together in and on the cross of our salvation. There, God Made Man sacrificed His own life for the lives of sinners. That’s how He used His power. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would have had no redeeming power. Only God Himself can redeem. And he did so in His broken body and in His shed blood. The cross fulfills the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament and ushers in the New. The cross demonstrates the perfection of the higher righteousness. Taking abject injustice onto Himself in His sacrifice – as He took all sin unto Himself – He establishes the perfection of justice in God’s mercy.
Our job, as men and women of the cross is to boldly proclaim the unique holiness of our Lord’s sacrifice without apology or shame – with no accommodation of evil and in the humility of self as we bear witness to the first place held exclusively by God.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with necessary courage to bear a faithful witness to your holiness. Deliver us from self interest. Establish within us the desire to hold you and you alone as the one who holds first place in our lives. And grant, by your grace that we may so live our lives that we may show, in all that we say, in all that we do and in all that we are, the priority of Your will revealed so perfectly on the cross of our salvation. We ask this in the name of your Son, our only Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord,