Rest for Your Souls

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

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

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the leaders of Judea to squabbling little children who won’t play nicely together. Some want to play the “wedding game” and dance to the piping of a flute; others want to play the “funeral game” and wail. The result of their squabbling is that they don’t play any game at all!

Jesus was making a point about the poor reception that God’s messengers had received from the political and religious authorities. John the Baptist came to call the people to fast and repent, and the elite of Judea disapproved. They didn’t like that game! Jesus came to call the people to rejoice at the wedding banquet of the Messiah. But they didn’t like that game any more than the first! As a result, the mighty and powerful ended up as mere spectators in God’s game of salvation.

The lectionary skips the next five verses, in which Jesus sternly rebukes the towns and cities that refused to respond to God’s call. And it takes up the story again with Jesus offering a rather unusual prayer of thanksgiving to God. He thanks God for hiding his true identity as the Messiah from those who consider themselves wise and worldly and for revealing it to mere babies. His point is that God does not reach out to us because we are particularly wise or intelligent, or rich or powerful, or successful or accomplished. He reaches out to us, because he is a loving Father, and because we are as needy and as vulnerable as infants.

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Jesus goes on to make a radically bold claim about his relationship to God: “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This claim points us directly to the doctrine of the Incarnation. It tells us why Jesus was born, why he proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God, why he was willing to die on a cross: in order to reveal the true nature of his Father in heaven. And that nature was revealed to be love.

Today’s Gospel reading ends with an appealing offer of rest for our souls. Jesus addresses the crowd and tells them that they can be released from the heavy burdens placed upon them by the Pharisees, who espoused a particularly rigorous and scrupulous interpretation of keeping the Sabbath. In its place, they are invited to yoke themselves to Jesus (in other words, to be his disciples) and to know true Sabbath rest.

Now, in this time of pandemic, it can be hard to find rest for our souls. We want to go out. We want to see friends. We want to go back to church. Instead, we are told to stay home. And we get frustrated and depressed and maybe even angry. I feel it myself! But Jesus offers us an alternative to forced idleness; he offers us true Sabbath rest. The more securely we yoke ourselves to Jesus, the closer we draw near to him, the more relief we will find from the burdens of this difficult time.

And there are so many ways to draw near to Jesus, even though the Eucharist is denied us for a time. We can draw near to him by meditating on the Gospels, a paragraph at a time. We can draw near to him by doing some small act of kindness for someone else, expecting nothing in return. We can draw near to him by chatting with him throughout the day, as we do our daily chores. (Jesus is a very good listener, you know!) Or we can draw near to him by sitting in silent contemplation from time to time and listening for him to respond. (And he will respond, if you listen long and hard.) Do these things, and you will draw near to Jesus. Do these things, and you will find rest for your souls.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Hospitality Has Its Rewards

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

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

For the last few weeks, we have heard Jesus instruct the twelve Apostles before sending them out on a mission to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Today, we get the final bit of instruction. It deals with the rewards of hospitality.

Now, we are accustomed to admonitions for the church to be more welcoming to visitors. And that’s particularly hard to do these days. Recently, a new phenomenon called “Zoom-bombing” has raised its ugly head. People either join Zoom meetings uninvited and then yell obscenities. Or they politely ask to be invited, and then yell obscenities. This has happened to several churches in the Bay Area. One church that had videoconferencing enabled had to watch child pornography till the host finally found the button to halt the church service. The current thinking is that each person who asks to join our worship should be thoroughly vetted in advance. Not an easy thing to do!

But today’s Gospel reading isn’t about that, at least, not precisely. It is not about us welcoming other people; it is about other people welcoming us. Jesus begins by promising that anyone who welcomes one of the Apostles as they roam the countryside preaching the Gospel will be rewarded. For when they welcome an Apostle, they welcome Jesus. And when they welcome Jesus, they welcome God.

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All this would seem to be unrelated to our present circumstances. After all, the original twelve Apostles are long dead. But Jesus’ teaching didn’t stop there. He went on to say that anyone who welcomes a prophet will be rewarded. Again, there are a few prophets in the world today, I suppose, but surely none among us! Again, Jesus’ teaching didn’t stop there. He then claims that anyone who welcomes a righteous person will likewise be rewarded by the Almighty. Now, I think this might begin to strike home for us at Incarnation. I know for a fact that there are righteous people in our midst. But Jesus extends his teaching even further. He finishes by announcing that anyone who offers so much as a cup of water to the lowliest of Christians will be rewarded in Heaven. Well, folks, that final promise covers all of us here. Jesus promises that anyone who welcomes us as followers of Jesus will be rewarded.

But they won’t be rewarded unless they welcome us. And they can’t welcome us unless we reach out to them. Now, in this time of pandemic, you cannot literally go out and spread the Good News, at least not safely. But you can still use the telephone. You can still send an e-mail. Terri Taylor wrote to me recently. She had noticed that the parish’s website doesn’t invite strangers to join our worship. She was right. As I mentioned earlier, it is almost impossible to do the recommended vetting with a complete stranger.

Here is where you come in. You have friends and family and neighbors and acquaintances, people who require no further vetting. You have the ability to reach out to them and to invite them to our Sunday conference call. Maybe they will say, “No, thank you!” But just maybe, in this time of isolation, they will welcome your invitation to join us in worship. Just maybe, they will welcome the opportunity to be part of our little community of faith. If they do welcome you and the message you bring, Jesus has promised that they will be rewarded in Heaven. But none of this can happen, if you don’t reach out as a disciple of Jesus and invite someone!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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It’s Time to Choose!

Gospel Reading

By the Rev. Darren Miner

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

In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus summoned the Twelve Apostles and sent them out to proclaim the Good News to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to cleanse the lepers, and even to raise the dead. Before sending them on their way, he instructed them. Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of that instruction.

Jesus begins by telling the Twelve to expect no better treatment than he has received. In other words, they should expect to be mistreated and threatened and maligned. Even so, he urges his disciples to have no fear, but to proceed with their mission at any cost. They are not to fear those who can destroy their physical bodies. They are to fear the One who can destroy both their bodies and their souls. And he doesn’t mean the Devil—he means God!

Jesus solemnly promises his disciples that if they are willing to accept the cost of discipleship and to publicly proclaim his teachings, even at the risk of their lives, they will be rewarded by God. Conversely, disciples who, for whatever reason, deny their faith in Jesus will be denied by God.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the eternal peace of the Kingdom of God, and he bestows peace upon his disciples as his final blessing. But here, he tells his disciples not to expect peace, but the sword of discord and division, even within their own families. Here, Jesus requires his disciples to make a very difficult choice: to rank loyalty to God above every other loyalty, including loyalty to race, country, political party, and even family.

When I watch the news on TV and read the newspapers, I witness many people choosing their fundamental loyalties—some wisely, others not so much. This confusion is to be expected. For we live in difficult times, and difficult times make for difficult choices. Ordinary people are being asked to weigh in on complex matters, such as racism, policing methods, public health, civil rights, and immigration policy. And people’s very lives will be affected by our decisions, or by our refusing to make a decision.

I have heard it argued that the Church should mind its own business and stay out of politics. Tell that to Jesus! In point of fact, the well-being of the people is the Church’s business. And Jesus has something to say to us about all the pressing matters of the day. We just need to tease out the answers together. We can start by prayerfully reading the Bible, giving special attention to the Gospels. And as corny as it may sound, we need to start asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”

Of course, there very well may be a cost attached to our decisions. We may be asked to give up something we value for the sake of people we have never even met. But who ever said that discipleship comes without a cost? Certainly, not Jesus! He told his disciples to take up the cross and follow him. He intended that every Christian should be willing to forge ahead, proclaiming the Good News and helping those in need, no matter the cost to self. This is the Way of the Cross.

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Now, Jesus’ call to follow the Way of the Cross might be too much for us to bear, especially in these trying times, were it not for two promises: 1) Christ will be by our side every step of the journey; and 2) there is a great reward awaiting us at the journey’s end. For the final destination of the Way of the Cross is none other than the Kingdom of Heaven.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Let Us Boast in Our Sufferings

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Reading

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

Today, I am compelled to preach on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, despite the tempting Gospel reading about being sent out like sheep into the midst of wolves; more specifically, I am compelled to preach on Paul’s provocative teachings on boasting and on suffering.

Elsewhere, Saint Paul soundly condemns people who boast about such things as their knowledge or their wealth or their power. But in today’s reading, he makes two exceptions to his rule against boasting. It is OK to boast “in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (That makes perfect sense!) And evidently, it is also OK to boast in our sufferings. (This, on the other hand, does not make perfect sense and requires a bit of explanation.)

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It helps to know that Saint Paul is not speaking about just any kind of suffering here. He is not encouraging folks to brag about how bad their hip hurts or how painful their arthritis is. He is encouraging people to boast about their suffering for their faith. He is addressing Christians in Rome, and he anticipates quite rightly that at some point they will face persecution and the threat of death. And he is encouraging them to boast about their perseverance.

Even so, it seems an odd thing to encourage. Why is boasting about one’s faithful endurance acceptable? Because we are to boast in what God has done through us, despite our weakness, despite our sinfulness. You see, this boasting that Paul encourages is really boasting about the power of God.

Paul goes on to make another controversial claim: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” It sounds a lot like a saying of that infamous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it means something quite different. For while Nietzsche was speaking of the formation of a “superior” form of human being who glories in his power to rule over lesser human beings, Paul is speaking about the formation of Christians who do not seek to rule over anyone and who give glory only to God.

Of course, we all know that suffering can produce results other than endurance or strength; suffering can also produce bitterness, despair, anger, and rage. Watch the news on TV, if you don’t believe me! But that is not to say that Saint Paul has it wrong. Perhaps his teaching will make more sense if I paraphrase it: “With the help of the Holy Spirit and our willing participation, suffering can produce endurance, and endurance can produce good character, and good character can produce Christian hope, and that hope does not disappoint.”

First, note that Paul’s teaching only makes sense if we allow for God’s grace, for the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of our suffering. And it only makes sense if we willing participate with the Holy Spirit. Unlike Nietzsche’s “superior” human being, we Christians need not, and should not, look only to ourselves in times of trouble, but to God. Paradoxically, our very weakness is our strength.

Paul’s point is that God can bring us from suffering to new hope in Christ, if we will only work with him. And such hope is not unfounded. For we know what God has already done for us out of sheer love; he created us in his own image and loved us as his own. We know what his Son endured for our sake, suffering death upon the cross that we might live. And we know what the Holy Spirit is doing for us even now in this time of social distancing, binding us together as a community of faith and reminding us through today’s Epistle that we don’t need to stand on our own, not now, not ever!

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Created in the Image of God

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Reading

In the Name of the Father, and of the X Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Even so, I will not be preaching on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Instead, I will be preaching on the lesson from Genesis. Or to be more specific, I will be preaching on one verse from Genesis: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

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What exactly it means to be created in God’s image is a matter of some theological debate. Most theologians have understood this verse as a reference to some kind of spiritual or moral likeness to God. But there is no unanimity as to just what that likeness consists of. The list of suggestions includes free will, creativity, self-awareness, reason, a sense of community, and even the ability to communicate. My suggestion is that being created in the image of God means that we are intended to be living icons of love; after all, God is love.

But as the book of Genesis makes evident, humankind failed to live up to its potential. So in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to show us what true, untarnished humanity looks like. He came to us to preach peace and love and mercy, compassion and forgiveness and brotherhood. It’s all there in the Bible!

And the Founding Fathers knew this. This nation was founded on the biblical principle that we have certain inalienable rights precisely because we are all made in God’s image. But sometimes, it seems that we have forgotten this.

Thirteen days ago, four policemen killed a black man who had been accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Mr. George Floyd, created in the image of God, was suffocated for his alleged crime. These policemen clearly sinned against Mr. Floyd. But they also sinned against themselves. For by their violence, they disfigured the image of God in themselves. The sin of racism is like that. It violently degrades the image of God in those who are oppressed, but it also mars the image of God in the oppressor, albeit much more subtly.

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In response to this act of violence, part of the nation has risen up in righteous protest. Others have risen up for very different reasons—some wishing to start a violent revolution, others wishing to profit from the chaos. But most of the country sits back and watches the spectacle in dismay, as the violence escalates. Right here in the Bay Area, two federal security guards were shot (and one killed) because they wore uniforms and looked like policemen. They had nothing to do with the death of George Floyd!

Now, most of the protesters are peaceful. But not all! And day after day, violence begets further violence. This nation needs leaders who will bring us justice and peace, for the two go hand in hand. We need leaders who know what it means when the Bible says that all humans are created in God’s image.

Last Monday, about 20 Episcopal clergy and lay people gathered on the patio of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. They came to hold a prayer vigil and to hand out water, snacks, and hand sanitizer to protesters. Half an hour before curfew, as the last of our fellow Episcopalians were packing up, they were attacked by the police and the National Guard with stun grenades and chemical spray. If there had been a warning to disperse, they never heard it. Thirty minutes later, a man walks from the White House and has his picture taken in front of that same church, holding the Holy Bible.

Peaceful protesters, created in the image of God, were violently attacked. Ministers of the Episcopal Church, created in God’s image and consecrated to his service, were violently attacked. The very image of God was violently attacked. And for what? So that one man might have his picture taken in front of a church, holding a Bible. Now, if that man had bothered to open the sacred book that he held in his hands, he might have found this verse: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant….”

If this nation is to know justice, if this nation is to know peace, we must relearn what it means to be created in the image of God, to be created in the image of Love. “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” God help us if we ever forget this! Amen.

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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The Lies of the Devil

Homily for the 7th Sunday of Easter

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Epistle Reading

Three days ago, we celebrated Ascension Day. For some reason, the editors of the lectionary have reprised the story again this Sunday. My guess is that they wanted to give those who didn’t attend on Thursday another chance to hear about the Ascension of Christ. Well, folks, if you snooze, you lose! I’m not going to preach on the Ascension again. Instead, I am going to say a few words about the Devil.

Now, the Devil is not a common topic of sermons in the Episcopal Church. I venture to say that quite a few Episcopalians don’t even believe in the Devil. But Jesus did, and so did Saint Peter!

Saint Peter’s warning to us is clear: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” The concern here is that we might get worn down by the troubles of this world and our faith might waiver and make us susceptible to the wiles of the Devil.

Now, it helps to know something about our adversary, if we are to be successful in resisting him. And a lot can be learned from his title—the Devil. The English word “devil” derives from a Greek word “diabolos.” It is often translated as “slanderer,” but its meaning is broader than that. It means “one who causes others to quarrel.” One aim of the Devil is to make us quarrel with God. And in a time of “fiery ordeal,” that job becomes all the easier, for we humans can get quite quarrelsome when God allows us to suffer. But it is also the Devil’s aim to bring dissension and disunity between and among ordinary people. And one of his favorite tools is the lie.

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Now, it has always been possible to tell lies about someone. It has always been possible to stir up trouble. But nowadays, it is so much easier, for we have the help of cable news and social media. The Russians used Facebook to interfere in elections in the United States and in Europe. It seems that their purpose was primarily to cause disunity. I’m sure the Devil was pleased. Just last week, the President of the United States got on Twitter and suggested that the presenter of a morning talk show was, in fact, a murderer. You can imagine the stir that that little slander caused for a day or two. Again, the Devil must have been pleased. In a recent interview on CNN, Nancy Pelosi feigned concern for the President’s health, slyly commenting on his “morbid obesity.” Yes, the President is obese, but he is not “morbidly obese.” That was a lie, and the Father of Lies was undoubtedly pleased.

If we are to resist the Devil, we must find a way to deal with the deluge of lies that accost us daily on TV and on the Internet. Saint Peter gives us some good advice: “Discipline yourselves. Keep alert. And resist!” I will add to that advice. Don’t make up lies, not even little ones. Don’t repeat lies, even if you find them amusing. Don’t believe lies, no matter how convenient they may be. Instead, take the time to do some fact-checking. And when you encounter a lie, counter it with the unvarnished truth, if you can.

Admittedly, resisting the lies of the Evil One can be exhausting. And in this time of deadly pandemic and political discord, this time of “fiery ordeal,” we are already feeling worn down. So it is not surprising that, from time to time, we may be tempted to give up the struggle. But we cannot! For to give in to evil is to be spiritually devoured. So, in those moments of weakness, those moments of temptation, follow the counsel of Saint Peter, and turn to God: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” and trust that he “will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”

“To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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He Ascended into Heaven

Homily for Ascension Day Year A

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Readings

Today is Ascension Day, one of the great feasts of the Church. Saint Luke tells us that, for 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. On the 40th day, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus was taken up bodily into the heavens. Today we commemorate that event.

Now, this story has great visual appeal. One Renaissance artist showed people devoutly kneeling on a hill with their hands joined together in prayer looking up toward a cloud.

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And from out of the cloud all you see are two bare feet sticking out! In 1958, Salvador Dalí depicted the Ascension from a different perspective; in his painting, the viewer is looking up directly into the noonday sun and sees the soles of Jesus’ feet directly above, surrounded by the sun’s rays. 

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Despite the visual appeal of the story, modern-day Christians understandably have some difficulty with the idea of Jesus Christ flying up and disappearing into a cloud. Our problem with this story comes from ignoring the fact that we are dealing with a case of mystical experience. Just suppose that God wanted to show the apostles that Jesus was leaving this realm of existence to rejoin the Father in another mode of being. How might he go about it? In a pre-scientific age, where people commonly believed that God lived above the sky, might he not show the apostles exactly what Luke says they witnessed—Jesus flying up into the clouds? (Now, granted, if God were to offer us this mystical experience today, he might show us something completely different.) The point is that God reveals his truth in words and images that are appropriate to the recipients. So, we shouldn’t get so hung up on the imagery of the story that we miss its meaning.

And the meaning of the story is my next topic. First and foremost, the Ascension signifies the departure of Jesus from the realm of earthly existence and the passing of the baton, so to speak, to the apostles. Jesus commissions them to be his witnesses to the “ends of the earth.” Then he departs and leaves them standing there staring into the sky. Two men in white, probably angels, appear before them and mildly rebuke them. In effect, they tell the apostles, “Don’t just stand there gawking. Get to work!”

But what a daunting mission they have been given! How could the apostles be expected to succeed on their own? Well, they couldn’t. So Jesus promised that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit to strengthen them for their mission.

But more is going on with the Ascension than the passing of a baton. Jesus’ Ascension was necessary in order to complete what was begun at the Incarnation. With the Incarnation, the second person of the Holy Trinity emptied himself of his divine glory and sojourned among us as a fellow human being. He experienced all that it is to be human—with one exception—he knew no sin. But Jesus did know temptation, hunger, thirst, pain, loneliness, grief, but most of all he knew love. With the Ascension, the Incarnation comes full circle. All that Jesus experienced as a man—all that humankind has and ever will experience—was assumed into the very Godhead, so that we might be saved through that union of the human with the Divine

Yes, in one sense, Christ did leave us. But in another sense, he is still with us, for even now he is seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf. Alleluia!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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The Holy Spirit: Advocate and Guide

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year A

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

We are now in the sixth week of Easter, and the lectionary is preparing us for two upcoming feasts, Ascension Day and Pentecost. The readings begin to hint at Jesus’ departure from the earth and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

But today’s Gospel actually takes place weeks earlier, at the Last Supper. Jesus is preparing his disciples for life after his death. And he makes them a conditional promise: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive…”

I believe that this promise applies to us today as much as it ever did to the confused disciples gathered in that upper room at the Last Supper. We too are expected to keep the Lord’s commandments. Now, Orthodox Jews are supposed to keep track of 613 biblical commandments. But followers of Jesus have it easy. We are expected to remember only three: 1) You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; 2) You shall love your neighbor as yourself; and 3) you shall love one another just as Christ loved us. Easy enough to remember, but not so easy to practice!

But the reward for our commitment to love is the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus refers to as “another Advocate.” The Greek word translated as “advocate” is “parakletos.” It’s basic meaning is someone called to stand by one’s side, and it can be translated in a variety of ways: advocate, mediator, intercessor, helper, comforter, adviser. And the Holy Spirit is meant to be all of these to us. One thing the “parakletos” is not is a “bystander.” Bystanders are people who are present, but do not take any action. That is not the Holy Spirit at all! The Spirit is all about action. And fortunately for us, the Spirit often comes to stand by our side even when we forget to call him there.

But not everyone, we are told, has access to the Spirit. Jesus warns that the world cannot receive him. Remember that in John’s Gospel the word “world” is a code word for those who actively oppose Jesus and his teaching. Those who reject the One who is Truth cannot receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Here we are speaking of the consequences of rejecting Truth Incarnate. But something similar occurs, albeit to a lesser degree, when we reject more everyday kinds of truth, in other words, when we lie or when we knowingly choose to believe a lie. Unrepentant liars cut themselves off from the Spirit. With each additional lie, they make themselves less and less capable of receiving the Holy Spirit and his gifts. And when we choose to believe a lie, or to act as if we do, because we think it serves us better than the truth, then we distance ourselves from the Spirit of Truth.

But those who practice love and walk in the way of truth know the Spirit intimately, for the Spirit abides with them and within them. In this time of social isolation, it is helpful to be reminded of this fact, to be reminded that we are never alone—not so long as we practice love, not so long as we cleave to the truth, not so long as we remember to call the Holy Spirit to our side. So, the next time you are feeling lonely or bereft, call upon the Holy Spirit, our advocate and guide, and open your heart to his presence. Your prayer might be as simple as “Come, Holy Spirit, come!” Sit quietly for a time with God’s Spirit—or chat with him, if you prefer! Then, join your voice to that of the psalmist, who rejoices: “In truth God has heard me; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.” Alleluia!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Following the Way of Jesus and Praying in His Name

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

There are several standout sayings in today’s Gospel, any one of which could be the topic of a sermon. But today, I will focus my attention on two: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” and “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” These stand out because they are difficult, and because they express deep spiritual truths.

In the first saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” the difficulty comes from the use of the definite article, the word “the.” This sentence makes the claim that Jesus is the unique revelation of the Father, that he is the one true way that leads to eternal life. For Christians, this is meant to be a word of encouragement and of hope: if you follow Jesus, you will find eternal life.

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But in this day and age, we don’t live in isolated communities composed only of believing Christians. Interfaith marriages are common. And many folks have family members who have abandoned the faith. What about them? Will they know eternal life?

Well, the answer is we don’t really know for sure. The letters of Paul presuppose that Jews will somehow be saved. But there is no developed theology of what happens to good people who do not acknowledge Jesus as their Lord.

So, I will give you my opinion. I firmly believe that Jesus Christ is the unique revelation of the Father. In other words, I believe in the doctrine that our parish is named after, the doctrine of the Incarnation. But I also believe that there are other ways of encountering Jesus Christ, in this life and possibly in the next, ways that are not mediated by the Church and yet are salvific.

My personal beliefs notwithstanding, the counsel of the entire New Testament is to follow the certain path to the one true God and to eternal life, namely, Jesus Christ. For he is “the Way and the Truth and the Life.”

Now, let’s jump to the very end of the Gospel reading and look at difficult teaching number 2: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The problem is that the promise seems contrary to our experience. We ask for many things in the Name of Jesus that we do not get. Was Jesus lying to us? No!

First, pay attention to the identity of Jesus’ audience. He is not speaking to us. He is addressing the disciples at the Last Supper. He is promising to continue supporting them in their ministry even after he has returned to his Father in heaven. There is no reason to assume that this promise extends to us. We can but hope!

Second, what does it really mean to ask “in the name of Jesus”? Is it sufficient to add the words “through Jesus Christ our Lord” to the end of just any prayer and expect it to be fulfilled as if by magic? Again, the answer is No. If you search through the Gospels, you will find other versions of Jesus’ promise to his disciples concerning the efficacy of their prayer. There, he clarifies what he means by true prayer in his Name. In short, true prayer in Jesus’ Name requires four things: the discernment of God’s will, trust in God’s power, faithfulness to God’s commandments, and participation in God’s community. Now, that’s a lot to remember, so I am going to say it again: true prayer in Jesus’ Name requires the discernment of God’s will, trust in God’s power, faithfulness to God’s commandments, and participation in God’s community.

Keep this in mind as we pray this day, and every time you pray in the Name of him who is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Alleluia!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Follow the Good Shepherd

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Readings

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because of all the references to sheep and shepherds in the readings.

Now, in Morning Prayer, the psalm precedes the readings and serves to set the tone for what follows. And Psalm 23 does a very good of job of it, beginning with the very first verse: “The Lord is my shepherd.” It is a pledge of allegiance to our God, a promise to put God above any earthly ruler. But for me, in this time of pandemic, it is verse 4 that really stands out: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” If we are honest, we have to admit that sometimes we do, in fact, fear evil. And that’s precisely why we have this aspirational psalm in our scriptures, so that we can read it, pray it, and find comfort in it.

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The lone exception to today’s sheep-and-shepherd theme is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which makes no mention of either. It avoids all such metaphors in its description of the exemplary life of the first Christians. Ironically, we cannot, at this time, practice all of the recommended devotions. For we cannot break bread together; we cannot share Holy Communion. Be that as it may, we can and should continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. We can and should continue in the prayers. And that’s why we are here today on this conference call!

The reading from the First Letter of Peter deals with the issue of righteous people’s suffering. Now, it does not explain why righteous people are allowed to suffer. But it does speak about how we might deal with the suffering that befalls us. Peter’s advice is to endure our suffering faithfully, following the example of Christ, the shepherd and guardian of our souls, who also suffered unjustly. For such faithful suffering will be credited to us in the next life. I don’t dispute this, but, even so, this is a very difficult teaching.

Finally, we come to the Gospel reading. In the first of two parables, we’re told that the rightful shepherd is let into the sheepfold by the gatekeeper. The shepherd calls each of his sheep by name, showing no partiality. His sheep recognize his voice and follow him, while the sheep that do not belong to him are left behind.

Jesus tells this parable to explain why some who hear the Good News respond and others do not. Those who do not respond are like sheep that belong to some other shepherd, one who does not truly care for his flock. Those sheep get left behind in the pen, unable to graze and subject to the ravages of thieves and bandits. The upshot of this parable is to follow the rightful shepherd, Jesus, if you would be saved.

Now, Jesus must have had the feeling that his audience didn’t understand the first parable, so he tries again with a second one. This time, Jesus identifies himself with the gate leading into the sheepfold. Jesus goes on to say that whoever goes in and out through this “Jesus gate” will be sheltered from harm and will have a good life. He ends this second parable with a mission statement, “I came that [my sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus speaks here about eternal life, a life in communion with God that begins in the here-and-now and that extends into eternity. Now, there may be times when that gift of eternal life doesn’t feel real—times like now, when you are locked in your house and missing your friends and family. But it is real! And it is the source of our hope as Christians. So, hold on to that hope, faithfully endure the suffering that befalls you, and follow the Good Shepherd wherever he may lead. For at the final destination, beyond the valley of the shadow of death, there will be green pastures and still waters and refreshment for your soul. Alleluia!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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