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Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Edward V. S. Moore, October 6, 2019

Cleanse and Defend Your Church

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Collect)

Today’s collect is one of only five that mention the church and one of only two which make no specific mention of individual needs. These prayers focus rather on the needs of the entire body of Christ’s Church. We began today by asking God to cleanse the Church from sin. This is a necessary request because in the first place the Church is a mixed body. What do I mean by that? It is made up of saints and sinners.

I once asked a friend why she attended a church miles away when there was a nice one conveniently located in her neighborhood. Her answer was that there were too many hypocrites there. I hate to say it, my brothers and sisters, but that’s the way it is everywhere. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares illustrates this truth. (Matthew 13:24) When his servants wanted to try to pull out all the unfruitful tares, or weeds, growing amongst the wheat, the sower of good seed told them it would only damage the good, grain bearing stalks. Besides, at the harvest the tares would be gathered and burned first, then the wheat would be harvested. So, in our Collect we ask that God would convert the hearts of any who are in rebellion against Him in any way—especially those within His body, the Church. When the heart and will of any member of the body of Christ turns away from God’s love, it needs cleansing. When anyone disregards Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, he is in need of cleansing by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, although we have been cleansed from original sin, all of us commit actual, that is day-to-day, sin. So, we are all regularly in need of God’s forgiveness. If the truth be known, we could all be accused of being hypocrites at one time or another, because we all commit actual sin. Behind the mask of righteousness, we are sinners.

Next, we ask Him to defend His Church from the attacks of external foes. These are those whose hearts are turned away from God and wittingly, or unwittingly, serve the devil’s evil purposes by attacking the Church. We specifically pray every Sunday for our brothers and sisters being so persecuted in our own day during the Prayers of the People.

We also prayed that God would preserve His Church by His help and goodness. The Church must never be allowed to be guided by what is merely expedient, but by the course mapped out by God. How can we know what course the Church should take? First, in all things we should pray for wisdom, as St. James tells us. (James 1:5) This can be further discerned through study of the Holy Scriptures, the tradition of the Church, and reason. These are the three pillars of Anglican belief, which are fleshed out by our liturgy, creeds, homilies, and the Articles of Religion.

Why is the Church so important? In his letter to the Ephesians Paul the Apostle makes it quite clear why the Church is of such critical importance to the world, and hence why we should pray God to cleanse and preserve it. This letter of Paul’s appears to have been written to a specific church that Paul had planted, namely the church at Ephesus. It may also have been intended to be circulated throughout the Roman province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital. This letter is different from his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, which respond to specific questions St. Paul had been asked, or address situations needing correction. This letter seems to be an attempt to explain God’s purposes to the Ephesians, including the preeminent role the Church was intended to play in those purposes. The Apostle is trying to communicate to the church at Ephesus a vision of God’s plan for them. To help them see the big picture, if you will. To help them not to get lost in the weeds.

In the first chapter Paul explains God’s overarching purpose. That purpose is to bring all of creation together in Christ (1:10). The Greek word behind this concept literally means recapitulation (anakephalaiomai). The King James translates it as “gather together in one all things in Christ”. St. John Chrysostom says that to “recapitulate” here means to join together. Some versions, such as the ESV, translate this word as “to unite.” It also means to sum up or summarize. St. John Chrysostom writes:

The providential ordering that has occurred over a long time, the Son has once for all recapitulated. Everything is summed up in him… There is also another meaning: In Christ’s incarnation God has given a single head (Lat. caput) to all creation, both angels and humans.” (ACCS, NT VIII, p. 116).

The universe was created by God and was originally in submission to His sovereignty until a critical event occurred – the Fall. At that point, man’s rebellion against God tainted the entire universe. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Romans 8:20–21 RSV)

In the 3rd chapter of this letter, the portion we read today (Ephesians 3:13–21), St. Paul is praying that the Ephesian Christians will understand God’s revealed purpose and their part in it. God the Father has chosen them to be holy and blameless in His sight. It was His pleasure and will to predestine them to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ. The blessings they have received in Christ include redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. Finally, He has made known to them the mystery of His will: that is to bring everything in creation, both earthly and heavenly, together under the headship of Christ, to restore everything to its original state, to original righteousness. Predestination is God’s eternal plan in which Christ is the Lord (Greek kurios) of creation, the wisdom and power of God.

With all this in view, St. Paul is praying that the Ephesians will be strengthened with might by the Holy Spirit inwardly; that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith; that they might have power to comprehend the extent of God’s grace; to know the love of Christ; and finally that they might be filled with all the fullness of God. Paul ends this part of his letter with a doxology. In it he expresses the limitless power available to the saints to achieve the purpose God has for them. This is nothing less than the might of God to resist the desires of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

How can this be accomplished? The answer is only by God’s grace. This strengthening comes directly from the Spirit of God and this through Christ dwelling in the inner man, that is in the heart of each believer. (Marius Victorinus, ibid., p. 154) Only Christ has the power to evict everything of a hostile nature dwelling in the soul. The perfect love of God casts out fear and every other thing which is not of Himself. (1 John 4:18)

What is “of Himself”? The answer is the gifts of the Spirit, the heavenly treasure which Jesus encourages us to store up. The more the better. In comparison, earthly treasure is of no importance or value whatsoever. Jesus’ reply to the man concerned about the division of an earthy inheritance was in essence: “Don’t bother me with that stuff. I have more important things to deal with.” Another priest has called this obsession with the trivial “majoring on the minors”.

Christ dwelling in our hearts, when we listen to Him, helps us to keep our focus on what is really important: what the philosophers call the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. As one minister has put it like this: “Truth is a reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of his character, and Beauty of his glory.” (“Hagia Sophia”, Donald T. Williams, Touchstone Magazine, September/October 2013, p. 18)

St. Paul’s advice is to focus on.

... whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

In today’s Gospel (Luke 7:7–17) Jesus displays the power of God’s Goodness by raising the dead son of the Widow of Nain. The gospel writers record three such miracles of resurrection by our Lord. The other two are His raising of Jairus’s daughter and of His friend Lazarus. These miracles would have recalled to the Jews of the time the restoration of sons to their mothers by the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17) and Elisha (2 Kings 4). The crowd who acclaimed Jesus as a great prophet was giving Jesus equal status with the Prophet Elijah. The setting is near Shunem where one of these Old Testament miracles took place, probably reinforcing the association in people’s minds. This young man had died; he no longer breathed; he was clinically dead. We are not told for how long. The pallbearers were carrying his body out of the town on a bier to be buried. Notice that the woman does not approach Jesus. Rather, it is He who takes the initiative, having compassion on her. First, He commands her not to weep. Then He removes the cause for her weeping. He touches the bier, stopping the procession, then speaks to the dead man, telling him to arise. The effect is instantaneous. He who was dead is alive. He sits up. He speaks. Christ, who is the life and the resurrection, by means of only a touch and a word, imparts life where there had been none. And in like manner, He wills to give us life through His body, the Church.

We receive new life from Him in Baptism as we are joined to Him and His body, the Church. As we grow and pray and worship God, especially in the Eucharist, as a part of His body, He sanctifies us. He helps us to grow more and more into His image and likeness as we yearn toward the goal of maturity in Him, to attain the fullness of every blessing God wants us to receive. This is not so we can feel good about what nice Christians we are, build our self-esteem so to speak, but “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known” (v. 9). This is how He wants us to use the gifts he has given us. To make his wisdom known to the world. And he gives us the boldness and the confidence to fulfill that mission.

As we approach the throne of grace this morning, let us all offer ourselves to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named. Let us pray him that he would grant us, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man. That Christ would dwell in our hearts by faith. That we, being rooted and grounded in His love, might be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of God’s grace; and that we would know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge, that we, His Church, His body, might be filled with all the fullness of God.

©2019 Rev. Edward V. S. Moore

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