Sunday, May 21, 2017

It's true, my prayers are not all that fervent.

IN JESUS' NAME


THE church is like a bucket with a hole in it.  She is always losing her faith, her religion, her practice, reverence, holiness, vocabulary, self-understanding and her reason for being.

The Spirit, who is the church's power source, is not to blame.  Rather, the unstable element in the mixture is the human one, yet God loves to work this way; to use the weak things of the world, to confound the strong, to use the things that are nothing and to bring to nothing the things that are, but our work today is not to fix the hole for that is impossible as long as God is pleased to allow us a share in His glorious work.  Our job instead is to fill the bucket up again with the sound doctrine and practice of the church of the ages.

Case in point, the 6th Sunday of Easter is known as Rogate Sunday and is dedicated to the theme of prayer.  Surprisingly, Christians today know very little about the subject, but unlike prayer sermons you may have heard, today you will not hear a catechetical review of the subject.  Neither will the pastor urge you to pray more fervently or faithfully.  Nor will you learn any recently discovered technique to make your prayers more effective.  All such   notions ring hollow because they all share the same fatal flaw:  they understand prayer in the abstract terms; as an isolated reality, having a life of its own apart from the church and her worship of the Triune God.

Therefore the first thing we should learn today is that prayer proceeds from this Divine Service; that Christian prayer, which is Christian worship, is something the Spirit accomplishes among us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the church's True Liturgist and the Righteous Man whose prayer availeth much.  Thus when we consider Christian prayer it is corporate, not personal prayer that should be first to come to our minds.  That statement will no doubt shock many people, so let us say it again.  The liturgical prayers of the church, those prayers written down for us in our Service Book and offered before this holy altar come first, and all other prayers Christians offer proceed from here; from this place where Christ our dear Lord is pleased to be with us in gladness and peace.   Now this is not the case for the Protestants by whom we are so strongly influenced; not the case for those "sects and denominations that deny the Gospel by way of the sacraments; and for whom the foundation of prayer is the shrine of their own heart instead of the flesh of Christ that graciously resides on the Christian altar."  The prayer of the Body has primacy.  This is the prayer we offer "with one voice" here in the church's Eucharistic worship which is the church's principle time and place of prayer.

Yes, corporate prayer comes first, but even more specifically the prayers the Bride prays in closest proximity with the Holy Communion she is about to enter with her Holy Groom.  Here perfect glory, laud and honor are rendered to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Here all "sorts and conditions of men" are prayed for well.  This is what Jesus means when He says, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you," but to pray "in Jesus' name" is not accomplished by adding that formula to the end of our petition (though we will never stop doing it.)  Instead, to pray in Jesus' name is a reference to the prayers the church offers in their Divine Service and most   especially those prayed in close proximity with the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Think about it.  When did Jesus give this promise, "whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you?"  He gave it on Maundy Thursday as He was instituting the Blessed Sacrament of His body and blood.  That is where He said, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you."  The church has always recognized this fact by consciously embedding the Great Intercessions within the Liturgy of the Sacrament, and more specifically after the Preface on page 24 (The Lutheran Hymnal), and as close to the consecration as possible.

Now the church raises good and true prayers throughout her worship because her worship is prayer and her prayer is worship, but we should learn to think of the Eucharist as the fountainhead of all prayer, even as it is of all mercy!

Once we clearly understand these things and are fully convinced that the Christian altar, not the Christian heart is the wellspring of all prayer, then we can safely speak of all the other petitions a Christian prays which too are worship and which are an extension of the prayer that occurs at this altar, so let us pray; first before the altar, but "at all times and in all places" as well:  in the home, in the world and wherever the Golden Sun of Christ's Love is needed to dispel the devil's wicked works and wicked ways.  Only let us be careful not to think of prayer as something having a life of its own apart from the church's prayer offered here before your very eyes, for the prayers we pray "out there" and "in here" (i.e. the heart) are nothing other than continuations of the prayers offered at this altar; that is prayer offered in Jesus' name.  Neither let us ever think of prayer as an individual enterprise, for no Christian ever prays alone, but always in concert with his Lord and in chorus with the whole church of heaven and hearth.  This is the meaning of the communion of saints we confess in the creed.

Let us especially caution on this Rogate Sunday against understanding prayer as an   adversarial relationship, one in which we must enlist "prayer warriors" and "prayer chains" or hold "national days of prayer" to over-power our gracious God till He raise the white flag   and surrender to us.  These are unnecessary, "for," as Jesus says, "the Father Himself loves you."

Above all let us learn today that to pray in the  name of Jesus is to pray before this holy altar, where Jesus is factually present and where He graciously assents to pardon our sins, hear our prayers, and fill us with every comfort, every consolation, and all joy and peace until we, too, return to the Father from whom we came.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras




Sunday, May 14, 2017

What does it mean that Jesus "gave up the Ghost?"

DIVINE CONVERSATION

Isaiah 12:1-6
James 1:16-21
John 16:5-15

For He will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever He hears, and will announce the things to come.  John 16:14

IT is not without cause that St. John the Evangelist, the author of our Gospel, is also known at St. John the Divine.  Neither is it a random accident that the three statues that adorned our altar on West 43rd Street, and will again beautify it here, are of the Lord with St. Matthew to His left, and St. John to His right.  The reason being that St. Matthew best discloses the Lord's humanity, while St. John unveils His divinity for us.  We perceive it throughout this fourth gospel, but especially in these latter Eucharistic chapters; ones that seem more mysterious than the rest, and that give the impression of shedding space and time, connecting earth to heaven and man to God, but to comprehend them is slow going.  You cannot surf St. John like you do the internet, or give it scant attention like skimming a string of tweets at a red light.  We must be patient.

What does the Lord mean when He says that the Spirit, "will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever he hears," or for that fact, when the Lord says of Himself, "I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me?"

Here we learn the existence of a Divine Conversation.  Here we discern the mutual love and blessed interactions of the person of the Holy Trinity.  Here we get a passing glance of what goes on inside of God, and it is a thrilling thought, but also like trying to stare at the sun!  It's not something a person can do for very long, so for now we must be content simply to know that the sun shines, to soak up its benefits, and to bask in the light of its glory.

Yet that doesn't mean we are clueless either, because Jesus is not just the Son of God, but also the Word of God, and that is not a figure of speech!

As your own words reside within you, even so Jesus is the eternal word that resides within the Father from eternity.  This is what He means when He says, "I am in the Father,"  and St. John is quick to inform us that while no one has ever seen God, the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known to us, not just as intellectual knowledge.  Yes, that is part of it, but the Christian religion is more than notions, doctrines and ideas.  It is the factual forgiveness of sins.  It is life and salvation, calm and consolation, peace and joy, gained for us by our Lord's sacrificial death on the cross, yet it is more besides, because Jesus didn't only win victory over our sins for us, and over the dead works we are so  terribly  addicted to, but He also imparts and distributes the blessings of salvation to us.  He does it here and He is doing it now.  Those are the Good and Perfect gifts that St. James references in his Epistle, that come down from the Father of Lights, who of His own will gave us new birth by Jesus, Word of Truth.

You see, the Divine Service is the place where we are made privy to the Divine Conversation.  Here the Word of God spoken in eternity, and from all eternity is heard by man, seen by man, believed by man, followed by man, experienced by man.  We are those men.  For what else is Christian worship than a divine Conversation between God and humanity using the  language of God.  Here God speaks, and we like little children learning how to talk, take in His words until we can repeat them for ourselves and learn what they mean, so that God's Word becomes our word, our language, the very breath that we breathe.

When the Lord gave His Word to Ezekiel, He commanded the prophet:  "Eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel."  "So I opened my mouth,"  says Ezekiel, "and He gave me this scroll to eat.  And He said to me, "Son of man feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it."  Then I ate it and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.  And He said to me, "Son of man, go to the House of Israel and speak with my words to them.""

What the church did in #zekiel's day 2,600 years ago, it still does today.  It gives voice to God's words and invites all who long for divine consolation in the face of insurmountable evil to join this Divine Conversation.

Yet we don't only hear God's word in this house, but like Ezekiel we can eat it too; not in the form of a scroll, but under the forms of bread and wine; not the corpse of Jesus dead on the cross, but His resurrected glorified and all-powerful body; which in turn gives power, glory and indestructible life to us and there is nothing better than that!

As part of His last will and testament made on the night in which He was handed over for our transgressions, the Lord wants us to know that it is the Helper, God's own Spirit, who informs, leads and guides the church into all truth.  That night the disciples were convinced that there was nothing better than having Jesus with them, but the Lord tells them differently.  "It is to your advantage that I go away,"  He says, "for if I do not go the Helper will not come to you," so Jesus went away.  He went where no man could to do what no man can.  He went to the cross where the Word Made Flesh suffered the full force of our sins and our judgment in order to render sinners righteous by faith.  We are those sinners so   rendered.  He went away beyond death, beyond the grave and returned to the Father from which He came, but He did not leave us orphans.  On the contrary, as He bowed His head in death, St. John reports that He "handed over the Spirit," and He is the one who, by holy baptism, makes us participants in this Divine Conversation;  one that will continues into the ages of ages.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras







Sunday, May 7, 2017

Who are "those in error?"

PRAY FOR THE LIGHT


Almighty God, you show those in error the light of Your truth so that they may return to the way of righteousness.  Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's church that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession and follow all such things as are pleasing to you.

THIS morning let us delve more deeply into today's collect because it has so much to say to us.  In it we ask our God to "show those in error the light of His truth," but who exactly are we talking about?

The obvious answer is the entire unbelieving world, because contrary to human dogma, people are not "basically good."  The verdict of Scripture is quite the opposite; that like so many crack-babies, people are born into the addiction of their parents, born addicted to sin, to devotion to rebellion, and enmity with their Creator, and though we may come into this world in perfect bodily health, spiritually speaking we entire it blind, deaf, mute and lame.  Every inclination of the heart of man is only evil all the time.  (Gen. 6:5)  We have no natural or inborn love or trust for the Almighty, but on the contrary are born rebels and the only god we truly serve is our own bellies.  That is the spiritual condition of every person born into the world.

Yet it is for this very reason that God gave His one and only Son to be our Savior.  Jesus did not come to "fix" us, but to save us.  He who is Perfect God, became Perfect Man; who by His life, death and death-defying resurrection saved and redeemed humanity from its fatal flaw.  He is the True Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.  

It is also for this very reason that God also provided holy baptism, so that by means of it we might gain access into this grace in which we now stand, so that we might be born a second time, born from above with God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother.

For this reason, because of the ongoing sins of the flesh, He also gives holy absolution, so that those who confess their sins will learn that God is faithful and just, forgives our sins, and continually cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

For this reason He also provides holy worship, holy communion and holy prayer so that even men who are made of dust and will return to dust can share now the immortal life God grants us in Christ.

Who else do we mean when we pray for those "in error?"  We also here pray for those who have given up their first love and have returned to the broad and easy road.  It happens, but we also know that Jesus relentlessly searches for his lost sheep.  He often recovers them by allowing all manner of trouble to plague their lives until they exhaust every earthly prop and can find not peace or rest, and there is only one way left to look:  UP, so we should never grieve as those who have no hope when we think of our fallen angels, for He who began a good work in all He has called will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is faithful.  He will do it.

Who else do we pray for when we speak of those "in error?"  We also mean those who are weak in their faith, tempted and torn each hour, assaulted by the devil and filled with anxiety, conflict, and doubt.  That is to say, we pray for ourselves, that we might gain strength, remain faithful, love the beauty of holiness, and overcome all temptation to believe or act contrary to our confession of faith.

We pray that God would grant faithfulness to  all of the above:  to the blind world, that it might come to faith by the light of the glorious gospel; for those who have fallen by the way that they might be restored; and for ourselves that we should not engage in self-righteousness, because remember, it is the sinful tax collector who went down to his house justified in the parable, and not the self-righteous Pharisee.  You are not better than the person you disparage:  the blind heathen, the fallen angel or any other person.  Indeed to think any other way is to elevate oneself over Christ who alone makes men righteous by His blood.,  There is nothing worse than that, but when we pray such prayers we should understand that we are not praying alone.  No Christian ever prays alone.  First and foremost the Holy Spirit carries the church's prayer to the Father and translates our very awkward and stumbling hopes into ones that are perfect in every way.  As if this were not enough, we know that Jesus is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father and is always interceding for His church.  You are that church.  Neither is that all, because the whole church of heaven and earth joins the chorus as well.  This is what we mean by "the communion of saints."

How does this prayer get answered?  How do people "return to the way of righteousness," remain faithful to the church's confession, and act in accordance with it?   This is the "business" the church conducts every Sunday as she prays for God to deliver her from evil, give her His Holy Spirit and every good and perfect gift from above.

Now we all know that what happens in Mexico may stay in Mexico, but what happens here does not.  Instead the grace here received goes into the world as this "noble army of men and boys, matron and maid." (TLH #452)  Take to heart what St. Peter says in today's epistle lesson, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul; and to keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."

This is who we pray for then:  the blind world, the fallen that they might be restored to the joy of salvation, and for ourselves lest we too should fall; and this glorious prayer is answered in this holy house.  God be praised.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras


Sunday, April 30, 2017

I don't deserve this treatment!

PATIENT SUFFERING


For it is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 1 Peter 2:19


THERE is a saying in theology, "lex orandi lex credendi."  It means that people worship as they believe, and believe as they worship.  It works both ways, but today's epistle puts that theory to the test.

Do we believe what St. Peter writes in the epistle we read for your worship today?  That to suffer unjustly is a gracious thing in the sight of God?  An act of worship as surely as the Divine Liturgy we pray this day?

You can be certain that you won't learn any such lessons in school, neither does the world's catechism have that as one of its "Chief Parts." but this is our faith:  For it is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly."

To say that this word of God challenges us is an understatement.  No one wants to suffer, justly or otherwise.  We all love our skin too much.  We all love our creature comforts too much.  St. Paul affirms the same in Ephesians chapter five when he writes, "...for no man ever hated his own body, but nourishes it and cherishes it..."  We are those "men."  It is who we are, what we do, and we need not apologize for it because self-preservation is as natural as breathing.  We cannot do otherwise.  Yet the Word of God we hear today asks us to do just that; to act contrary to our nature, and to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ, "who when He was insulted did not insult in return.  Who when He suffered did not threaten His tormentors in return, but prayed for them, and entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly."

May we all learn to do that today; to entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly, because as you know people do not.  Human reason, infected by sin, is like a computer teeming with virus, so that it can no longer do what it's supposed to do, so we should not be surprised when people act irrationally, unjustly, or ignorantly; not only not surprised, but we should expect this to be the case, expect public sentiment to lead to illogical behavior, to lead to irrational laws, and finally to persecution of those who won't go along with the program.

The believers to whom St. Peter writes were such people as all Christians should be; that is to say, people who don't go along with the program.  Make no mistake about it.  The hearers of Peter's sermon were good citizens, good neighbors and contributing members of society, so should we all be, but they would not worship Caesar.  They would not burn a pinch of incense at the local Caesar shrine when asked, and it did not take long before a full blown persecution began that lasted for some 260 years.

Christians became persona non grata against whom all manner of assault was permitted.  They suffered the whole range of persecution:  verbal assaults, exclusion, fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and often enough torture and cruel death because they would not worship Caesar, but worshiped Jesus instead.  We should do the same, however much the world objects, and it does!

Our hymn, #430, "What is the World to Me," teaches us this in memorable words.  In verse 5 we sing, "The world is sorely grieved, Whenever it is slighted.  Or when its hollow fame, And honor have been blighted.  Christ, Thy reproach I bear, Long as it pleaseth Thee; I'm honored by my Lord, "What is the world to me!"

At this time we still have religious freedom, but it daily becomes more acceptable to bash what Christians hold dear.  What God calls good is now called evil by the culture; and what God calls evil is now praised in glowing terms.  This is persecution.

One might posit that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me, but it does hurt.  To the person who has "the mind of Christ," who has captured glimpses of glory in holy worship, and who feasts on the Truth of God as given in Holy Scripture, it is excruciating to observe; to watch as America eats her young, as she praises and glorifies sins that run counter to nature, reason and anatomy, but we must be silent about it because our beliefs are no longer welcome in polite company or tolerated in the public square.  Yet in the church we will not be silent, whatever the consequences might be.

Now it's true that, "we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding our blood," as the preacher to the Hebrews says, but many Christians have the world over, especially at the hands of Muslims, and the storm clouds are gathering.  We may or may not be living in the "end times" as Christians use that term, but we are living in the end times of a brief day when the Christian religion was the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

We might well ask the question posed in Psalm 11:3, "if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?"  St. Peter answers this way, "...what glory is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?  But if in doing good you patiently endure suffering, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  For to this you were called."  Why?  "Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.  He committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth.  When He was insulted He did not insult in return; when He suffered He did not threaten, but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly."

"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree; so that we might die to sin, and live to righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed.  For you were like sheep being led astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls."

We are those people so restored!  As such let us follow the example of our Lord, and suffer patiently, but not as those who have no hope, yet rather as people who are conscious of God, and who entrust themselves to the One who judges justly.  For He is our true Father and we are His true children in Christ.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras


Sunday, April 23, 2017

What is the anointing of the Spirit?

THE LORD AND GIVER OF LIFE


Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.  John 20:30-31

EASTER is not only the celebration of the Lord's resurrection from the dead, but the assurance of our own as well.  We say in the creed, "I believe the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."  The body we refer to here is our own.  As Jesus was awakened, we too shall be awakened.  As Jesus was raised, we too shall be raised.  As Jesus was given a new and glorified  body,  we shall receive the same at the resurrection of all flesh.  This is the ultimate purpose and promise of the Lord's suffering, death and resurrection, to give amnesty  o rebels, and give life to the dead.

We hear the same promise from Ezekiel in today's Old Testament lesson where he says, "And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live..."  (Ezek 37:13)

And again from St. Paul's letter to the Romans, "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you."  (Romans 8:11)

The one who does all these things, dear Christian, is none other than the Holy Spirit of God, the third person of the Holy Trinity.  He is exactly what we confess Him to be, "the Lord and Giver of Life," but if He is so vital, where does He come from?  And how do we make Him our very own?  Those are the questions we will feast on this morning.

One of the most overlooked words in our faith is the word Christ, a word that is used nearly 500 times in the New Testament, and is a regular feature of our liturgy, offices, prayers and hymns.  Most people think that Christ is just another name for Jesus, a synonym like Savior or Redeemer, but it is much more than that.  The word Christ comes from the word chrism, which means oil.

In the Old Testament kings and priests were anointed or chrismated with oil.  Copious  amounts of olive oil were poured over their heads and ran down their beards so that they listened and shone like the sun, like the Light of the Word Himself, whose earthly  representatives they were, but every priest or king ever anointed was more than met the eye.  He was an object lesson directig us to the Anointed of God.  He was a living prophecy of Jesus, the Lord's Christ, whom the Father would send in the fullness of time.

St. John wants everyone to know and everyone to believe that this Jesus is the Christ, so he makes scripture.  He writes a gospel.  He creates a sacred text and concludes it by saying, "these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name."  May we who have celebrated the solemnities of the Lord's resurrection, believe that today!  May we give it all credence because there is nothing more precious in this world than what St. John writes here, nothing more dear than having Life in His name, yet we know that sinners cannot have life because the verdict of Scripture is that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that the wages of sin is not the life and good times it promises, but cold, cruel death instead, so if we are to enjoy this most cherished and guarded possession of all, our very existence, and if further we are to "look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come," then we must rely on Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Anointed One, Jesus the One who is chrismated not with olive oil, but with the Holy Spirit of God, with the Lord and Giver of life.

We learn this from the testimony of St. John the Baptist who says, "I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him.  I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."

Others throughout salvation history, prophets, priests, craftsmen and kings were always given a measure of the Holy Spirit, for without this anointing they could not conduct their divine work, but St. John the Baptist assures us that this Anointed One of God, chrismated with the Spirit, not only possesses the Spirit, but gives the Spirit to men, "without measure."  (Jn 3:32)  He demonstrated this on the evening of the first Easter when He passed through locked doors, greeted terrified disciples in peace, and breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."  He did the same on Pentecost, only on a grander scale.  He does the same in the church each day, for whenever a baby is baptized or absolution given for sins confessed, or as often as the glad tidings of the gospel are given voice; the One who is at work behind the scenes is the Lord and Giver of life Himself, forgiving our sins and the sins of all believers and imparting his fruit of love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Therefore we should know today, on this second Sunday of Easter, that Jesus is the Christ:  Jesus the chrismated One, who by His Spirit is always at work in the church raising up our dead bones, and breathing new life into them.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What does Psalm 23 mean?

THE LORD OF THE PSALM


The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul:  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names' sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:  for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.  Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:  and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

THERE is no question that the 23rd Psalm is the most famous and well-loved of them all, or that it has brought more peace to troubled souls than any other, but for all its elegance, unless we invest it with the announcement that Jesus makes in today's gospel that He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, it does us little good at all.

In fact Jesus is the Good Shepherd who did lay down His sacred life in order to rescue us from the peril of everlasting death as our Collect says: and to insure that we will always be filled with the perpetual gladness and eternal joys the church prays for in her Collect this holy day. 

Therefore just as we learn the ten commandments with their Christian meaning in our catechism, let us do the same with today's Psalm.  Let us learn its Christian meaning.

First we should know that Jesus is the Lord of the Psalms, and when He is your shepherd you can confidently confess along with King David, "I shall not want."  You can believe with all boldness and confidence that He will provide you with all that you need for this body and life, and for your eternal life as well.

The still waters in the Psalm are prophetic of holy baptism.  The great error the church in our day is that everyone wants to be in touch with Jesus, but without using the channels that He Himself establishes.

Mary Magdalene did this when she saw Jesus on Easter morning.  She tried to hold the glorified Lord, but Jesus said to her "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father..."

The church should learn from this to apprehend Christ only by His appointed means, so let us learn to highly praise the "still waters" of holy baptism even as the Psalm does.  For by baptism we are incorporated into the name of the one, true, God:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all others imposters.  There is nothing better than that, no more glorious or higher aspiration a person can ever have, but baptism is not just a passing ceremony.  Rather it is God's covenant of love that He makes with us at the font, and that carries us throughout our entire life, each hour of each day, and crosses with us into eternity as well.  It is the great inheritance that will never expire.  God's own blessed promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you, not now, not ever.

This is why we should make the sign of the cross often, because it is an incarnational remembrance of our baptism; a bodily motion that involves our whole person, a holy moment that covers us with the cross of Christ and calls to mind all the forgiveness, love and the protection it provides us from sin, death and the devil.  By it we preach the gospel to ourselves, to our fellow Christians, and to all who have eyes to see.

To be baptized also means to walk in the straight and well-established paths of righteousness as we learn them from holy Scripture.  Sheep, by nature, walk in zigzag lines.  They do this, because unlike skunks or porcupines or other wild animals, they have no natural defenses, so they are constantly using their peripheral vision to spot any wolves coming from behind; but when Jesus is your shepherd, you have all the protection you could ever need. Christ before me, Christ behind me.  The devil cannot harm you.  The Lord's rod and staff, which symbolize the cross, comfort us, because we know that no enemy can touch us here.

Still, living in the world is not a walk in the park!  Until the Lord returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, to set all things right, this world will always be "the valley of the shadow of death."  It will be marked with every imaginable evil and misfortune, and it is no Christian virtue to deny that; no virtue at all to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the world is anything other than what it is.  Leave that to those who don't know Christian doctrine, or who hold a faulty version of it, but let us see the world for what it is.  Only let us not be afraid of any evil, whatever its form, whatever its threat, whatever its reputation or supposed power to harm us, because our Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who conquered sin and death and who raised us to new life in baptism and who promises in this Psalm to be our constant companion.

Yet He is not only an imaginary friend, the kind a child may invent when she feels alone, but one who prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  That table is the Holy Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, wherein we eat the Lord's body and drink the Lord's blood, in with and under the bread and the wine, so that we can say, "For thou art with me" and mean what we say.

Therefore this delightful Psalm is not a hazy and imaginary affair, but a pure confession of the holy Christian faith, for in it we find the Good Shepherd who did not run when the wolf came, but offered HImself in our stead.  He laid down His life for us, and by His death we obtain the remission of sins, peace with God and the expectation that whenever we look over our shoulders, we will see goodness and mercy pursuing us all the days of our lives, and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord our God forever.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Where is this cure for death?

DEFYING DEATH


Lo! I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and this mortal body be clothed with immortality.  When this perishable is dressed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory!  O death where is your sting!  Where your victory!"  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.  But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.  1 Corinthians 15:51-55

TODAY God's people defy death!

Today the church accomplishes what humanity has feverishly tried to achieve by politics, technology, social engineering and every conceivable superstition since the fall of man into sin; namely to abolish death and to "fundamentally transform" this cruel world so that it should become paradise, but nothing has worked!

Death still bats a thousand.  Correction: make that .999 because there is One Man whom it could not conquer, and whom the grave could not secure, and that is the one we name Lord; Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, but who could not be found in the tomb on the first Easter because He woke up from death very early in the morning and walked away, and it is for this reason that Christians refer to death as nothing more than sleep, for we too will wake up from it.  We too will rise up like the lame man Jesus healed, and walk away when the Last Trumpet sounds, so take heart!  Though we seem to be hopelessly entangled with the cords of death, Jesus will untangle them and set you free.

Yet when the church defies death it is not with contrived courage like a group of 10-year-old boys daring one another to jump from the high dive.  Neither is it because we live in denial as people so love to do these days.  Nor is it because we have worked ourselves up into an alternate reality like jihadists who are willing to shed innocent blood and throw away their own precious lives for nothing more than a lie.  Nor are we under-prepared when we spit in the face of death like a person who brings a knife to a gunfight; NO!  We are fully prepared, gathered this Easter to defy death by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and by His celebrated resurrection from the world of the dead.

We defy death by the cross!  The "man from heaven" entered the dust of the earth.  Our captain penetrated death's stronghold.  He walked in its front door, spoiled it, pulled out its stinger, robbed it of its power to intimidate and proclaimed His victory over it then and there.  This is what we mean as often as we confess"He descended into hell."

We defy death by the Lord's resurrection which we mark this day, by which He opened all the prison doors so that the grave can no longer hold you in.  Indeed it now proves to be nothing more than the gate to heaven for all who believe and are baptized.  The case is exactly as we sing in the hymn, "and the grave that shuts us in shall but prove the gate to   heaven.  Jesus, here I die with thee, there to live eternally."  (TLH #409)

In the Liturgy of St. James used by Eastern Catholics today, death is personified and cries out, "My power has been destroyed, for I received a dead Man as one of their dead, but I could not hold Him.  Then I also lost with Him all those who were under my power.  From the beginning I held the dead, but now This One raises them." To this acclamation the worshipers respond. "Glory to your cross and resurrection, O Lord."

We further defy death by faith:  by believing St. Paul when he writes that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God," but that we shall all be changed in the blink of an eye, when our Lord makes His glorious return to judge all things in our favor.  To unveil all that is now shrouded in impenetrable mystery; and to set right all that sin has made so appallingly and dreadfully wrong!

We defy death by the power of baptism in which we put on the whole armor of God, for it is not simply a metaphor that St. Paul gives in Ephesians chapter six, but something that is accomplished in us by the church's primary sacrament."  In it we put on Christ:  His cross, burial, resurrection and immortal life.  He is now our shield.  He is now the suit of armor that renders harmless the devil's fiery darts.

We defy death by the power of the Eucharist.  What was separated on the cross, the Lord's body from His blood, was joined together again at the resurrection and assumed into heaven at His ascension, for our Lord never did, nor ever will shed His humanity which is His connection to us and ours to Him, so we should be clear that it is not the corpse of a dead Jesus that we receive in holy communion, but the living flesh and blood of our resurrected, ascended, glorified, exalted and eternally-reigning Lord, and it is this holy communion by which we enter into fellowship with the Living God!

Therefore in the name of Jesus we will no longer "whistle past the graveyard."  Instead we will continue to defy death and to spit in its face, not by any power or goodness or righteousness of our own -- God forbid -- but by Jesus our risen Lord, Who "in the blink of an eye," will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself."  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras