A Sermon Preached on The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
August 18, 2019 11:00 am
What time is it?
We are inured to the precision of modern time. If a clock is off by a minute or two, we notice it. It wasn’t always this way.
Time used to be something local, and defined by what the sun was doing. When the sun came up, people woke up, and when it set, people went to bed. The day was broken up into hours and the night into watches, but the length of the hours and the watches varied by the season and who was keeping track of it. Events started when people arrived and all was ready, which could vary by hours, days, or in some cases, months. In some places the middle of the day would be signified by a cannon firing, or the drop of a ball on top of a pole or a building.
Then, as society became more global and intertwined, establishing precise and accurate time became important. Shipping required ships to know where they were so they could avoid hazards and take the most expeditious routes. Latitude was easily reckoned, but longitude, the distance east and west, was difficult. Only when accurate chronometers were created, by 1760s, tough things that were portable and could be used in conjunction with astronomy, could position be established accurately. That happened in the 18th century. Then, in the 19th century, with the advent of fast travel on rail, the need for a standard time in a country or jurisdiction became important. If Cork had a noon time that was fifteen minutes later than Dublin, when did the train get in? This led to the twenty-four time zones being set up. Shortly after the Second World War atomic clocks came into use, and Universal Coordinated Time came into being. Now, with the use of satellites and adjusted for the effects of relativity, GPS allows us to be just about anywhere and know where that is, and what time it is.
But what time is it for God?
Human timekeeping is not God’s time. God is both outside of time and inside it, as the Creator. Outside of time God is eternal and non-temporal, and inside of time God is everlasting and behind all events. So the perspective is a bit different.
From the perspective of God, as given to us in Jesus Christ, we are living in the Last Days. We have been in the Last Days since the coming of Jesus. This is not something new in this generation or century. The Last Days have been two-thousand years long, and they will continue until the kingdom is here in its fullness. That’s as precise as we get.
And what are the signs of these Last Days? Throughout the Gospel according to Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles, and paralleled throughout the other gospels, letters, and Revelation we find:
- The Holy Spirit come upon people, seemingly indiscriminately. Mary, a young peasant from Galilee, of all people, is chosen to bear the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit, and full of the Holy Spirit she proclaims the Magnificat. Paul, who persecuted the early Church, is transformed into a preacher of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit he speaks in tongues, prophesies, and preaches (and writes letters that are recognized as spirit-filled, and so become scripture). On the Day of Pentecost it is given to everyone who follows Jesus:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
The Spirit compels people to be as Jesus in the world: proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick, and driving out evil.
- The kingdom has not arrived, but the people of God live as though it has, because of the Spirit. In stark contrast to the world around it, justice is lived out by the Christian community. This is seen at that most basic thing, food. We read in Acts how goods are shared, so that none go hungry. The sick are cared for and healed. Sins are forgiven, people repent and are changed, and old enemies reconciled.
- There is a radical inclusiveness. The Spirit is given to anyone who seeks it, including Greeks and Barbarians, and not just the people of Judea. Women in the early church appear to have been co-equal with the male disciples – Mary Magdalene is the first entrusted with the gospel of the resurrection. Slaves are considered to be the equal of their masters within the church, and as a logical consequence of this Paul encourages Philemon to free his slave Onesimus.
- All of these things are signs of God sanctifying and acting in the people of Jesus – and this is the fulfilling of God’s promises. As the author of Hebrews puts it, we are being made perfect, and we are running with perseverance the race set before us.
But there is a downside to this.
- Persecution, beginning with Jesus and continuing with his disciple, initially within the varieties of Judaism compromised by alliances with Roman Imperium, and then later by pagan Roman rulers all on their own. This persecution has continued to this present day.
- Jesus says the gospel will set
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
Of course, some people would think that this is just the way things are, but in many societies family is everything. First century Palestine was like that, and so Jesus’s words were even more shocking then. Jesus here is not advocating division for the sake of enmity, but simply stating the fact that in a broken world we should not be surprised that we bring our brokenness into families. When it comes to the gospel, many within families would resist its radical call. This division extends to the family created by baptism, the church. Some estimate that there are now some 43,000 different denominations of Christianity. The letters of Paul and the John, as well as Revelation, all witness to these schisms from the beginning.
- The power of the gospel has too often been allied with the powers of the world, beginning with Constantine the Great and through to the present day. This has led to imperialism, colonization, the justification of violence in ungodly pursuits, genocide, and support for violent and oppressive regimes. Church dignitaries have prefered to cover up abuses within the institution rather than bringing them out into the light of day.
And yet, despite all this,
- The church perseveres and grows. While we might wonder about the future of Christianity in England and Europe, where “none of the above” is the fastest growing faith, the church is nevertheless growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia.
- The church reforms itself. It did this in the 3rd and 4th century, when Christianity had grown so much that it was becoming a means of social advancement. People like St. Antony heard the gospel as a call to renounce the world and live in the wilderness. He and those who followed him began monasticism. In the 12th and 13th century Dominic and Francis began preaching orders that were oriented to bringing a lively faith to ordinary people. In the 16th century the Protestant reformers went back to the Bible to transform the church into something more Christlike. In the late 19th century radical Christians called into question slavery and campaigned for its abolition. In the 20th century the Social Gospel movement advocated for the poor and the common person. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights movement, condemning segregation. Oscar Romero challenged despots and death squads. Desmond Tutu condemned apartheid as a heresy, and following its end, led the process of reconciliation in South Africa. Much of the church, in the wake of the Holocaust, has repented of its anti-semitism and supersessionism.
What do these signs say to us? How do we read them?
Rather than tell you how to read them, let me ask some questions.
- First, are we open to the Holy Spirit working within us? The foundation and growth of this little church seems to be an example of the Spirit – where will it drive us next? As our Church Council looks as our mission and tasks for the next few years, have we sought the Spirit?
- Second, are we living the kingdom of God now? Are we radically inclusive, and do we welcome and actively solicit the involvement of all sorts of people in our congregation and in our lives, and not just people who look and sound like us? Have we reached out beyond our ethnic group to invite others and make them feel welcome? I come from a part of the Anglican Communion (the Diocese of British Columbia in the Anglican Church of Canada) where we have married clergy in same sex unions, where we hung out rainbow flags over the front door, the Bishop marched in Pride parades, and same-sex weddings are permitted. Now, I know that the Church of England has a different policy on this, and thus this congregation, being part of the Diocese in Europe, so do we. However, the three other Anglican churches in the British Isles – the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales, and the Episcopal Church of Scotland – have all moved to be significantly more open on the marriage of same-sex couples. Do we need to look at this as well?
- Third, where are we with justice, and how do we fit that into our lives?
- In the United States, Canada, and Ireland the largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, is in disrepute because of sexual scandals. On a smaller scale various provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, have been dealing with sexual abuse. We have had a good response, but it could be better. Are we not only safeguarding, but are we being seen to be doing the right thing, so that the possibility of abuse of the most vulnerable among us by our entrusted leaders is made as difficult as possible? When will safeguarding be seen not as a bureaucratic add-on, but a central part of evangelism?
- The American conservative evangelical movement is now strongly identified with
- the denial of science and facts around climate change and gun violence,
- the disparaging of non-white immigrants and refugees,
- a rollback of achievements for gays and lesbians, and
- the demeaning of women.
Many Christians in the historically African-American denominations no longer want to call themselves evangelicals because of the antagonism they receive in attacks from their white brothers and sisters. Furthermore, there is a growing movement of young ex-evangelicals who see themselves as Christians but cannot abide the narrow hypocrisy of their home churches. They love the people in the churches they have left, but they can no longer abide the debasement of ethics and morality in the name of political goals.
The situation is different here in Europe and in the Church of England, and Evangelicals are not so likely to be aligned with one political party or set of social goals. That said, the challenge of the gospel – to show our faith in our works, by care for the poor and disenfranchised as if they were Jesus himself – remains. Our words must match our deeds.
And in the end . . .
Are we walking by faith, as our forebears did, as described in the Letter to the Hebrews, as Jesus and the disciples did? Are we Christ centered, seeking to conform our lives to his? Do we know what time it is?
May the words of the Psalmist be our prayer:
Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven,
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.