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To Be A Saint


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“Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesuscanswered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.”

-St. John 18:37

Today we honor Christ our King, and pledge Him our love and our obedience. Today we are invited to meditate on themeof Christ as our King and our Lord. The very name of this Feast of Christ the King tells out that we are His subjects, His people, His followers. That’s a bold claim and it challenges us to ask if we really are doing our best to be followers of the King, His sons and daughters. Let’s hold on to that thought.

We don’t like kings. Our nation exists out of a struggle to rid itself of a particularly difficult and arbitrary, and some would say barking mad, English king. We find kings at best quaint, figures of a bygone age. Maybe we look on them with nostalgia. I love this verse from Shakespeare,

“And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Or perhaps we hold them a bit a bit silly like that old comic strip entitled The Little King by a fellow named Otto Soglow which told its stories using images and very few words as a mostly pantomime with a rotund bearded
fellow as the vertically-challenged (that would be short)  king.

We don’t keep them in much esteem here in America. As Mark Twain said, “All kings is mostly rapscallions.”  And we’ve come a long way from James I of England who said, state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: for kings are not only God’s Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods. Makes you want to get out your musket, doesn’t it?

And so this morning we turn to our king—a king that doesn’t fit any of our popular images, or even those in the history books. Let’s look at a picture of our King—the King of Kings.

In the grey light of a morning, the desert cold just beginning to recede, it was humanlya most vulnerable and helpless hour for Jesus. He stood bruised and bound and bleeding. After a sleepless night during which He had been arrested and dragged from one place to another, roughly questioned by authorities, and now hw stands before the agent of a king, an emperor, actually. He stands before a Roman governor who represented the world-wide power of Rome. The governor asks the prisoner this most audacious question, “Are You a king?” On the surface it looks ridiculous. Here’s the dialogue of an earth shattering moment:

Pilate: “Are You a king?”

Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this  world then my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm.”

Pilate: “So you ARE a king?”

Jesus: “You say  I am a king. For this cause I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Pilate: “What IS ‘truth’?”

Jesus said to Pilate, and to all the world, that He came into the world– that He was BORN to reveal truth.  But how does thatremotely fit in to any notion of kingship?

On this October morning when we are called to think on who our leader-our real leader, our king, is. Close your eyes for a moment. Picture that scene of Jesus standing before Pilate in your minds’ eye. What do you see?

If we use a worldly mind-set we see weakness standing before power.  We see a victim standing before the representative of a dictator.  We see a martyr standing before false and wicked injustice.  We see one man with the power of life and death standing before another about to die. But, beloved in Christ, with the eyes of faith we see, we see that, yes, weakness IS standing before power– but the power is NOT with the Roman.  We see one Man with the life of the other in His command, but the one in danger of death is NOT the Man from Galilee.  How can this be?

Jesus the Christ told Pilate several things that morning. He said first, He IS  king!  Second, our Lord said that His kingdom is not derived from nor dependant upon earthly power either to establish or to maintain it. Third, Jesus said His is a kingdom of TRUTH. The King Himself IS the witness of TRUTH.

What sort of king is this, our king? Listen to the epistle reading from Colossians 1:13-30:

For He [God the Father] delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us TO THE KINGDOM of His beloved Son, IN WHOM WE HAVE REDEMPTION, the forgiveness of sins.  AND HE IS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, the   first-born of all creation.  FOR BY HIM ALL THINGS WERE CREATED, both in the    heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible,  hether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created by Him and for Him. AND HE IS BEFORE ALL THINGS, AND IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER. HE IS ALSO THE HEAD OF THE BODY, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile  all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth, or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:1 -20)

Jesus’ majesty is veiled as He stands before Pilate. But the Jesus the Christ is God: He is eternal! All that the Scripturessay of Him as true in eternity, in the future, in the present– were true that day:
1. The image of the invisible God! Holy, loving, patient, pure.
2. The firstborn of all Creation.
3. By Him all things were created, both visible and invisible.
4. All things were created FOR Him.
5. The KING was prior to all things, co-eternal with God.
6. IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER!
7. He is the Head of the church.
8. He is the firstborn from the dead
9. Through HIM all things are reconciled unto Himself, since He made peace through the blood of His cross, things on earth and in heaven.

What kind of king is this we hold to? If Jesus IS who the Bible claims Him to be, and He is. If He is King as HE HIMSELF said that day– then whom do you suppose was REALLY on trial the day Jesus was crucified? Pontius
Pilate, with all of the power of an emperor behind him, asked the wrong question that morning. He asked, “WHAT is truth?” He was looking at truth, just as we are facing the truth! He should have asked “WHO is Truth?”

But to this day we Christians–who have been baptized and catechized, who have the Scriptures in how many translations, who know the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed keep asking “WHAT?”!! We
confuse “truth” with our supposed  knowledge of the facts and our interpretations or what we sophisticated modern folks want to plug in to make ourselves comfortable. Too often we fail to see that we cannot know TRUTH apart from the
PERSON who IS truth and who REVEALS truth. And Pontius Pilate, for his part, actually pronounced a true verdict (“I find  NO fault in this Man!”). But, then, he rendered an utterly false and unjust sentence (“You take Him away and crucify Him…”)  Then, the Roman soldiers proceeded to play a game with this King.

The Roman garrison was adjacent to the Temple grounds.  In recent years the pavement has been uncovered in what was the ground floor of that fort. This pavement (Gabbatha)is marked with dimly carved figures, something like a giant chess or checkerboard.  On that checkerboard the common soldiers played a cruel game with the condemned Christ, Christ the King. They crowned Him with thorns and wrapped Him in an old robe and then they gave mocking bows along with all the abuse and resentment that they felt toward their own wicked masters.  But in their shameful ignorance that day they mocked the One Person who is the “glue of the Universe!,” the One who holds all Creation together by the power of His Word!  Jesus was on His way to “make peace through the blood of His cross,” and so “to reconcile all things to Himself!”  And these people did not have a clue!

And this horrifies us. WE would never treat the King that way!  But you know what? We do just that.  Think about it: To do anything less than to acknowledge Jesus as truly Sovereign in our lives is to make a mockery of His kingdom.  Unless we are submitted to Him in every part of our lives and living, then He is not truly the King of our lives.  There is a world of difference between the grace of faith and the arrogance of our human presumption.  To say that we are
Christian when we are not wholly submitted to the King is to take the place of Pilate and ask the question, “WHAT is truth?”,  when we know we should be saying to the One who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, “JESUS IS LORD!”

Our presumption mimics saving faith!  Faith and presumption may look similar. Presumption mimics faith’s confidence and assurance.  But the confidence presumption gives is false, and it will turn into terror before the appearance
of the Sovereign Lord, before Christ the King. To say that we are Christian and then to say that we shall decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, to decide how we will run our lives, to take ourselves into a life apart from divine revelation and apart from the Lordship of Jesus is to mock the King of Kings. We mock even as the soldiers put the purple robe on Him the day He was crucified.

Beloved, Jesus is the chief cornerstone of life for all the Universe!  He is the stone the builders rejected, but when we build on Him we “stand firm” and we “fit in” with all the truth of the Universe.  When we reject Him, He will have to deal with that., for He is King.

We are coming again full circle in the church year, and we sill shortly begin again with Advent.  This Sunday of the  year we call “Christ the King Sunday”  is a reminder that history is NOT simply going around in circles, but that because Christ IS King, one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is NOT coming to vindicate OUR way of life, nor OUR interpretation of the content of “truth.”  “Jesus is LORD!”: and when He returns it will be HIS life that is vindicated, and HIS glory that will be revealed!

We are called to discernment NOW!  We are called to faith NOW! We stand with Pilate NOW– where it LOOKS as though we have the power to decide “What shall we do with Jesus?”

I know it seems like a sudden leap forward into the Advent story (and it doesn’t seem possible that Advent is fast approaching) , but we are called to the faith of Joseph, who couldn’t believe the kind of King who was coming, from the line of David the shepherd boy who became a great king.  Joseph had a hard time believing the angel who told him:  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take  Mary as your wife: for that  which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 20 – 21)

We keep looking for the spectacular, when instead Jesus stands before us in the everyday living of life, in all of our joys and in all of our sorrows, it seems as if HE is on trial for HIS life!  And we keep making life and death decisions for ourselves, when we have the TRUTH Himself ready and waiting to be our own CHRIST THE KING the king of glory who gives nothing other than eternal life!

So this day let us emblazon in our hearts and minds the words of the psalmist,

“Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.”

Hail, Christ our King. Amen.

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(Given at Saint Alban’s, Richmond, Virginia)

“My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able tostand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against fleshand blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

In the military, the Army in particular, there is a tradition of giving a coin to people who deserve recognition, to special visitors, or to commemorate a particular event.  These coins-called challenge coins-usually have the name of the particular command or a commander and perhaps a little motto on them.  The longer one is in the military, generally the more of these things one amasses, and together with various mugs, glasses, ball caps, t-shirts and belt buckles make up the kind of memorabilia collection that is guaranteed to annoy one’s wife.

We chaplains are not immune from the tradition, and senior chaplains typically hand out a challenge coin with an actual message. On the one side there is a set of ancient armor, a helmet, breastplate grieves and a sword.  On the other there are the words, “Put on the full armor of God.” These little coins are meant remind those who in harm’s way of the only true protection from the only real death, the armor of the Holy Spirit, of Word and of Sacrament that ward against eternal death. And you know. the military metaphor has had a strong attraction for Christians for two millenia. In fact, these images were common throughout both Old Testament/Jewish apocalyptic literature and in in the New Testament. There is a frequent use of military images by Christian writers at this time also—For example, in 2 Corinthians (10:3-4) we hear that “…though we walk in the flesh,we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;).  Again, in I Thessalonians (5:8-10), “…let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”

These images are woven into the fabric of Christian tradition.  In St. Jerome’s commentary on the passage we learn that From what we read of the Lord our Savior throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armor of Christ is the Savior himself. It is he whom we are asked to “put on.” It is one and the same thing to say “Put on the whole armor of God” and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our belt is truth and our breastplate is righteousness. The Savior is also called both “truth” and “righteousness.” So no one can doubt that he himself is that very belt and breastplate. On this principle he is also to be understood as the“preparation of the gospel of peace.” He himself is the “shield of faith” and the “helmet of salvation.” He is the “sword of the Spirit,” because he is the Word of God, living and efficacious, the utterance of which is stronger than any helmet and sharp on both sides. (Epistle to the Ephesians 3.6.11.6)

And in music, we have stirring hymns–like Onward Christian Soldiers and Saint Patrick’s Breastplate that call the Church militant to battle against the forces of the prince of the world or invoke the strong protection of the Trinity in this struggle.  In one of the hymns I selected for my ordination–Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus–we hear the stirring lyrics that echo today’s epistle passage:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Stand in His strength alone; The arm of flesh will fail you, Ye dare not trust your own. Put on the gospel armor, And watching unto prayer;
Where duty calls or danger, Be never wanting there.

This is a seemingly simple verse from a rousing hymn, but when we look to the Epistle, our task is a bit more complex as St. Paul emphasizes the combative nature of the Christian
encounter with this world.  Christians are strengthened by putting on the Gospel armor–the “whole armor” of God to protect and prepare them for their encounter with “the wiles of the devil” that
will assault them. The whole armor refers to the entire stock of protective apparatus available to soldiers going into combat — a wholeness that is necessary so that no unprotected surfaces are open to harm.
That Christians “stand” against these forces reasserts the simple foot-soldier image of the Christian — those who may expect to combat the enemy at close quarters, hand-to-hand and face-to-face.

This battle requires God’s strength because the opponents facing believers are not other human beings (“flesh and blood”) but “cosmic powers of this present darkness.”  While St. Paul offers
apocalyptic imagery, the battle that confronts Christians is in the here and now, the “present darkness” and not some distant future. And, it is a battle with a terrorist: a spiritual terrorist.
St. John Chrysostom wrote in his Homily on Ephesians that, “The enemy does not make war on us straightforwardly or openly but by his wiles. What are the devil’s wiles? They consist in trying to capture us by some shortcut and always by deceit…. The devil never openly lays temptation before us. He does not mention idolatry out loud. But by his stratagems he presents idolatrous
choices to us, by persuasive words and by employing clever euphemisms.”

This kind of warfare is akin to dealing with a terrorist—in this case a genuine master of terror who makes use of a bomb-maker. The bomb-maker frequently conceals the deadly within the familiar or
even welcome things of life-a child’s stuffed toy or in an innocent looking Christmas package. The target of destruction welcomes it, brings it inside and it explodes with devastating effect–maiming and killing.
Yet, unlike suicide bombers and other assorted folk who make up terrorist cells, the encounter St. Paul describes is not with human beings.  Even the world rulers mentioned in the passage should be understood in slightly Gnostic terms as dark spirits who have made both this world and the “heavenly places” potential regions for their dominion. And aren’t we familiar with this type of ruler these days?

Having revealed the frighteningly powerful forces that oppose the faithful, the St. Paul urges us to take full advantage of the protection God offers, the “armor” that is our only hope to withstand that “evil day” which, signifies the time in which we live. St. Paul then begins the next section of exhortations with more military language, encouraging the Christian “soldier” to “stand”–to stand up as a Christian and for Christ against the enemy. Again, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, every Christian home is a bit like a military encampment, and God stands ready to provide His armor to those within.

For we are able to stand only by wearing this promised armor–spiritual armor– that Godprovides. As we have noted, the items St. Paul describes are all part of a standard armored soldier’s wardrobe, and each piece protects and prepares the soldier for combat in a particular way. Let’s take a closer look. The firsttask in battle is to learn how to stand firmly, and the “belt” or “girdle” of truth plays a dual function. First, its complete encircling of the faithful supports the Christian wholly, leaving no part unprotected. Second, the soldier’s belt was also a place to store other weapons, showing that the truth of God’s love through Christ also provides Christians with a grounding for other convictions — salvation, deliverance, inheritance.

Next, the “breastplate” of the soldier protects the most vital and vulnerable places, i.e., the throat, heart and lungs–we see them in modern infantry in the ubiquitous flack jacket. God;s righteousness functions similarly for Christians confronting evil. Without the unyielding righteousness of God, we, too, wouldnever be free from the threat of some mortal blow. God’s protective righteousness is also described in the book of the prophet Isaiah (11:4-5 and 59:17) with the same type of military image and offering the same symbolic shielding.  But, as we hear from St. Paul, righteousness is not as strong as faith, because righteousness lives by faith.  What are those words from the Mass–we do not come to Thy table trusting in our own righteousness?  So the breastplate is not bulletproof, it must be linked to another part of our armor–faith.

The “shoes” with which believers must be shod are surprisingly less clearly defined than the other armored accoutrements. Traditionally soldiers wore sturdy sandals or even boots that had nails driven through the soles. These could then act as cleats, helping the battling soldier to “dig in” effectively against an opponent. But St. Paul doesn’t specify a particular style of shoes; instead, he leaves open the question of what “will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  St. Jerome describes our footwear as something that enables us to prepare us to walk, to press on to our goal in Christ.

The mention of “peace” in the midst of martial images startling–“your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.”  It highlights the radicaldifference between the gospel Jesus offers and the violent discord the “spiritual forces of evil” pour out upon the world. For those “in Christ,” however, no matter how much chaos swirls about them, they can stand firm within a calming peace — for Christ is our peace and our stability on an often shifting battlefield (Ephesians 2:14).

However vague St. Paulmight be about the foot covering, the description of the “shield of faith” is quite detailed. The image of the Epistle refers to the ancient tradition of taking the heavy wood, cloth and
hide-covered shields of the front-line soldiers and dipping them into water just before the battle. The shield soaked up this water and retained its wetness for quite some time. In this way when the enemy rained down flaming, pitch-covered arrows on the advancing troops, the arrows that embedded themselves in the wet shields harmlessly went out, instead of engulfing the shield and its soldier in flames.

The shield of faith carries all of the capital virtues and brings them tofulfillment.  Unless we are armed with this shield we simply won’t have the strength to battle courageously and to resist all of the deadly powers.  Those fiery darts of temptation and perverse desires are extinguished on the shield of faith.  For if faith is capable of commanding hosts of demons, how much more is it capable of ordering the passions of our souls.

The “helmet of salvation” is another military image borrowed from Isaiah (59:17). But what is part of God’s own armament against injustice and evil is now given over to protect those standing faithfully in the fight. By being given God’s own “helmet,” St. Paul demonstrates just how directly and personally our salvation comes from God.  In the words of Jerome, because of this helmet, the senses of our head remain intact–for if Christ our salvation is at our head, we won’t lose it.

The final piece of equipment itemized here is the only potentially offensive weapon– the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Note that though the Spirit is mentioned, the Spirit itself is not a sword, but the Spirit works through the word of God. It is the Spirit’s vitality and strength which lends the sharp cutting edge to the sword which every believer can wield: God’s holy word. It allows us to cut away at the sins that beset us and focus on the true prize, Jesus Christ.

But Christians have yet another piece of armament on which they may rely, anotherpositive power that gives that extra added protection — prayer. The “war” Ephesians envisions is fought with both the power of prayer and the sword-like word of God. The final exhortation to pray may initially seem like an unusual demand in the midst of all this military imagery, but for St. Paul it is a major weapon in the Christian’s arsenal. Verses 18-20 outline how this state of constant prayer is to be attained — we must “keep alert” and “persevere.”

Constant prayer was greatly emphasized in the early church community — and it is surely  commended to us in these times–for it is only by remaining in a state of constant contact with God that we may feel assured that God’s protective presence remained near at hand. By persevering in prayer “for all the saints” — that is, for all those who are members of the body of Christ — the bond between individual Christians is strengthened and tightened and the armor of God protects all. So, we are armed to our utmost protection and, in the words of the hymn, we are watching unto prayer. What remains?  Only to call upon our King and urge Him to extend His hand that like St. Paul we may be ambassadors, of Christ, open our mouths boldly, and make known the mystery of the Gospel.  Amen.

-The Very Reverend Canon Charles H. Nalls

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(Given at St. Alban’s Richmond, Virginia)

“THIS I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk…”-Ephesians 4:17

What a baffling and confusing world we live in today. So many conflicting ideas and concepts are thrust upon us from every direction and many of them seem directly contradictory. Self-proclaimed authorities tell us one thing and then another and what they say clashes violently. Pick an issue, take a trip through cable television or on the internet, and there is always a pundit or talking head willing to put their two-cents in. This is particularly the case in this heated political season. Sometimes, we find it hard to know what to believe. No wonder that many are confused and ready to follow any voice that seems to offer a way out.

Now, to a Christian living in this often confusing, baffling, bewildering world, St. Paul has a very definite word to say. It is not worldly, vague, uncertain word of advice. It is not simply another of the voices on every hand today, but it is clear and precise and right to the point of the problem that you and I are facing.

In the opening verses of the 4th chapter of Ephesians, the apostle has been dealing with the nature of the church and the part each Christian has to play in its operation and its growth.
But now, in this 17th verse, he turns to the Christian in relationship to an unbelieving world, a world in which we as Christians must live. Though this account was written almost two thousand years ago, it is impossible to read this thoughtfully without seeing that the world today is exactly the same, and our reaction as Christians must be exactly the same.THIS I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that yet henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind… Look at the force of that verse, the apostle says “I say and testify in the Lord.” That means this is not merely a piece of apostolic advice or simple human reasoning. This is a result of divine revelation. This is the finger of God placed squarely at the root of a human problem.

Well, what is it St. Paul says? He says, “You Christians must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the vanity or futility of their minds.” It is helpful to translate the word Gentiles here by the word nations-it means “the nations,” worldlings, those outside of Christ. “You Christians,” St. Paul says, “must no longer live as they do.” How is that? “In the futility of their minds.” St. Paul is saying, “The place to start in living as a Christian is to recognize you must think differently than the world does.” He does not start with actions. He starts with thinking.

St. Paul is not one of these do-gooders who moves in and tries to change the outward scene only. He starts with the mind, and he declares that the world’s thinking is futile –empty. This is the vital appeal that he makes to Christians, “You must not think like the worldling does, you must not adopt the world’s philosophy of living, or follow the world’s systems of value.” Why? “Because the worldling lives in futility, emptiness of mind.”

If this is true you can see why there is such a fundamental cleavage between Christianity and the world, and why the Lord Jesus drew a distinct line between the thinking of the world, the direction of the world, the destiny of the world, and those of the Christian. This is why the Christian is told he cannot love the world and the Father at the same time.

St. John makes that crystal clear in his first letter {cf, 1 Jn 2:15}. There is a fundamental difference between the two. This is why “friendship with the world,” in the words of St. James, “is enmity with God.” {cf, Jas 4:4 KJV}. Notice, not friendship with worldly people, that is something different, but friendship with the world, with its ways of thinking, its philosophy. That is enmity with God.

Now I want to emphasize this point, because it is a very important distinction. As we all know, we pride ourselves on the ability to reason. We consider this the highest function of humanity and take great pride in our ability to ferret out knowledge and to put various items of knowledge together to produce very practical gadgets. We point with pride to the technological perfection of our modern society, to the skill with which science has appears to have harnessed the forces of nature and made them the servants of man-no matter what the moral consequences.

Man exalts his reason, but the writers of Scripture universally agree, though all this may be very impressive, clever, and remarkable in the eyes of men, in the eyes of God the reasoning of man is vain. As the Lord Jesus himself put it, “What is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God,” {cf, Luke 16:15 KJV}. Now that is plain, strong speaking.

But see how the apostle brings us as Christians face to face with the fundamental issue? Either God is right or the world is right, one or the other. It cannot be both. The Christian must choose on which basis he is going to live his life. If he is to follow Christ, he must be willing to have his thinking changed. When you become a Christian this is the first issue you face. You must be willing to have your whole fundamental outlook on life drastically altered. Christianity is not merely a change in outward actions, or a bit higher moral or ethical level. Christianity is a revolutionary change of internal government which results in a radical change in behavior. This is what St. Paul drives home, before analyzing more closely this problem of faulty thinking. What can make our thinking pointless, so without ultimate significance? The answer he gives is in Verse 18:

they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; {Eph 4:18 RSV}

St. Paul is tracing a chain of cause and effect here. The first step is that the worldly think futilely because their understanding is darkened. Just as a cloud, passing over the sun, darkens the light of it, so the thinking of man in his fallen state is shadowed, obscured, darkened. Scripture continually uses these terms, light and darkness, as metaphors for truth and ignorance. Truth is light; ignorance is darkness. St.Paul declares that men’s thinking is shadowed with ignorance. That is rather convicting, isn’t it? We think we know so much, and, in fact, we do. We know so much, but we never know quite enough. That is what the apostle is saying.

Again this relates to a truth that we find widespread throughout the Scriptures: Man is ignorant because there is a part of his being that does not function. It is his spiritual life. His spirit is blank, darkened, obscured. In that part of our being which was intended to function as the key to our lives there is nothing taking place. As a result, knowledge is broken, unrelated, incomplete. That is the picture St. Paul draws. What man thinks, though it may be very clever, does not bring him anywhere, does not better him. We are haunted these days with the question: Is this tremendous civilization, increasingly secularized, really doing anything for us?

Some years ago, I wandered among the ruins of an ancient civilization in Monte Alban in Mexico. Many of the half-covered temples are just now being excavated from the dirt and dust of centuries, and the more archaeologists uncover the ruins, the more we learn of the remarkable civilization of that day. But modern man is continually haunted with the question, “Are we really any better than that pagan society?” We may be better off, but are we any better? Have we really advanced in ways that matter, or are we on the retreat from the truth?
The understanding of man is darkened and it is especially evident in his thinking about himself and about God. It can be seen in our value systems, our power structures, particularly here in our Nation’s capitol. And we see it in the way in which people determine what is important and what is not important.

Illustrations abound for this. Coming back from Grand Rapids a couple of weeks ago, I sat down on the plane to prepare a sermon and re-read this most incredible paragraph,

The decline in religious feeling among civilized people is an indication that man is steadily becoming more rational and less subject to superstition and therefore less likely to kill and maim those who disagree with him.

Certainly the writer didn’t take into account rampages in Pakistan, Afghanistan or any other stan, the incredible spate of shootings and mass murders these last weeks, the violence of the abortion industry, the ongoing religious persecution and the viciousness of rogue nations and terrorist groups. What a confirmation of the apostle’s analysis of human thinking. The minds of “rational” modern men and women fallen man are darkened. They don’t not see things as they really are. So many can ignore obvious facts that thrust themselves upon us constantly and blithely dismiss them with a wave of the hand to pronounce that mankind is getting better and better.

This unaccountable darkness is seen in the glib talk today about “situational ethics” — morals determined by situation, expediency. We hear it also in claims of the relativity of morals, and the widespread acceptance of the idea that sexual promiscuity is an expression of personal freedom, even though those who indulge in this kind of living inevitably show themselves to be increasingly the slaves of human passion, and suffer in their own lives the consequent inevitable restlessness of spirit and torment of heart. How can man be so blind?

In our blindness, so many think they are all right, and, therefore, they do not need God. The next step is inevitable. They are “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.”
St. Paul is not blaming mankind for this, any more than God blames us for it. It is important to recognize, though, that the world is encouraging an ever darkening understanding, that leads to a rejection of the life of God and divorce ourselves from the one thing we need to be fully human! Both nature and Scripture agree that we are incomplete without God.

But there is yet more here in this Epistle passage. If people were cut off from God only because of ignorance of Him, they might well excuse themselves, for no man can be blamed for not having what he doesn’t know exists. But we now we learn the whole truth. It is all “due to their hardness of heart.” People remain cut-off from God only because of the hardness of their hearts-flat stubbornness.

A young Christian, who may be a bit too market-oriented, said to me recently, “Why is it, when we have the world’s greatest product, it is so hard to sell?” The reason is because human beings resist the truth, reject light, turn from God’s love, cling to error, and thus make their hearts gradually harder and harder and more unable to respond. All of this marks the shadowed thinking into which the world tries to draw us. St. Paul says, “You Christians must not think this way any longer.” If you are going to live a Christian life, first change your thinking. Do not follow these philosophies, do not agree with these attitudes, do not adopt these value systems.” Those who do:
…become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. (Eph 4:19 RSV)
We hear the same warning in the first chapter of Romans, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind” (Rom 1:28b KJV), that they might practice the awful list of evil deeds that is so frankly and bluntly described there. It sounds like it was culled from the pages of any morning newspaper today.

Why do people do these things? Why is moral licentiousness and our standards so constantly deteriorating? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “There is such a thing as being in the dark, even while the light is shining…. And so surely is it also here; when the strong current of the affairs of this life overwhelms the perceptive power of the understanding, it is thrown into a state of darkness.”
But the good news of the Gospel is love of Christ penetrates this darkness and melts the hardest of hearts. So we must not blame people like this, or withdraw from them. We are to remember that we, too, we too were there. As St. Paul says in Colossians 1:21,

… you who once were estranged and hostile in mind, that is the way we thought too, until God’s love reached us. So we are not to be not to be hard and harsh, toward these who think this way. This is the basic condition of humanity to which the Gospel makes its appeal and we are to speak the truth in charity.

Now there is one other thing. The only hope of helping these people is to demonstrate a wholly different pattern of thought, a wholly different set of values, and a different and transformed life. If we live like the world lives, even though we are Christians, there is not a thing we can do to help others; not a thing!

There is an old story of a boy who thought he would teach some sparrows to sing like a canary, so he put them in a cage with the canary, hoping the canary would teach them to sing. In a few days he found the canary chirping like the sparrows. This is always the case, is it not? If we give ourselves to the attitudes and ways of thinking of those around us, we will inevitably do the same things. We seem to be constantly surprised these last few years at leaders who have gone through moral breakdowns. Why? Because somewhere along the line they succumbed to the futile thinking of the world. This is what makes even those who seem to be strong in the faith to turn from the things of Christ to materialism or personal ambition or worse. St. Paul offers a response, You did not so learn Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. {Eph 4:20-21 RSV}

In Christ, you have the truth by which you can test everything else, the truth as it is in Jesus. That is a wonderful phrase. That ought to form the basic concept of all Christian thinking. You have found in Jesus Christ the truth, the simple truth: About life, about yourself, about the world, about the makeup of science and nature, about human behavior. “In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” {cf, Col 2:3}. You have found in Christ the truth.

Jesus said these challenging words. “If any man follow me, he shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life,” {cf, John 8:12}. That means a Christian does not need to walk in uncertainty about things, in lack of knowledge. Christ said to his disciples, “If you continue in my word … you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” {cf, John 8:31b, 8:32}. That is what the truth always does, it sets us free. Truth, even though it is hard truth, difficult truth, is realistic and therefore it sets us free and tears away the veils of illusion and brings us to reality.

That is where we are to begin to live, and this is why St. Paul says we “must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” The is strength here far greater than the worldly can dream of. There are possibilities of fruitfulness and glory and grace in Jesus Christ which, if they begin to manifest themselves in your life, will set your neighbors and friends saying, “what has this person got? What kind of a faith is this?” “What do these people have that makes them able to live like this?”

Therefore, what we are must be what Christ is, for that is the only life that arrests and challenges others and changes the world. Amen.
-The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

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