|Credit: Church of the Resurrection New York NY|
Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You shall know them by their fruits."
If we are a typical congregation, I submit that there are a number of you who are afraid of snakes. If a large snake came slithering down our center aisle, I am sure you would probably move very close to the wall. I recently read about the reason for our phobia about snakes. It seems that many of us have an unreasonable fear of snakes because of the story of the fall of man in the Book of Genesis. Remember that the villain in the story was a snake. Something happened to many of us as children after we heard that story and we developed an inordinate fear of snakes because of it. Now I know there are others that fear snakes because they know that some of them are poisonous, but it seems that many, many people are afraid of snakes because of that story in the Book of Genesis.
Perhaps if we were to understand why the snake is the villain in the story, maybe that might change our attitude a little bit. The people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, inhabited by people called, properly enough, Canaanites. The Canaanites were people who worshipped all kinds of false gods. For example, they worshipped what are called astrodeities: the sun, moon and stars. They had names for them and worshipped them. When we hear the story of creation, the author of the Book of Genesis says, "He created the lesser light to rule the night and the greater light to rule the day and created the sun, moon and stars. With one sweep of his pen he just wrote off all of those astrodeities.
Now, one of the most abominable forms of worship that the Canaanites indulged in had all kinds of unsavory elements in its celebration. It involved the worship of a fertility god. Guess what symbolized that god: the form of a snake! When the author of Genesis came to write the story of the fall of man, he took the principal god, or at least the basest god, of the Canaanites and make him the villain. Again, with one sweep of his pen, he has put down the Canaanite religion. Now, some say, because the Genesis story, a lot of people developed a fear of snakes.
I think another unreasonable fear might also have developed because of the Scriptures: the fear of wolves. Because of the gospel reading this morning, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves", the wolf gets a very bad press. It might be interesting for you to know that there is no documented case of a wolf attacking a human being. But wolves were looked upon as evil predators. Because of that, they were hunted nearly into extinction in many countries. We have developed greater sophistication in later years and we understand now that wolves have a very essential place in the ecosystem.
Perhaps because what Jesus said here about wolves, that they are "ravening" wolves, they get very bad press. They become the villains of Jack London stories. It's very unfortunate that sometimes the fiction develops in a culture and people develop an inordinate fear of wolves.
If we don't have to fear the wolves, at least we have to listen to what Jesus our Lord has to say about the wolves. I never knew a wolf yet that dressed up like a sheep to attack a herd of sheep. That's all symbolic, isn't it? And yet, what Jesus teaches is that there are some who would mask themselves as angels of light and really they are angels of darkness. They are evil. From the time of Matthew's gospel all the way to the present time, there have been those who have clothed themselves in sheep's clothing and have attempted to destroy the flock of Christ. In every age there has been one or another kind of heresy, a deviation from the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Time after time, the apostles had to deal with what was called Gnosticism in which Christianity and the teachings of Jesus became the foundation of an elitist religion. If you have the "inside" knowledge then you were a lot better than those ordinary Christians and certainly a lot better than those pagan types. But whether it be Gnosticism or Manichaeism or Albigensianism or Quietism or Puritanism - no matter what it is, all through the ages it has always been an aberration. The individuals that were involved in them were like wolves in sheep's clothing. It looked so good. It sounded so right. And it tended to deceive people time after time.
In our own time there are still heresies around. They still abound. One of them is called New Age. New Age theology, if you want to call it that, is simply a belief that we're all gods and if we only knew that, we could just develop our potential. But we are not gods. We are made in the image and likeness of God, but we need the redemptive work of Jesus Christ our Lord by his passion and death and resurrection to restore this impaired human nature of ours. We know that. Yet, so many people would embrace this New Age thinking. Now there are some good things about it. It involves a lot of beautiful meditation, but not all of the spirits conjured are benign; not all of those spirits are of the Holy Spirit.
There's another heresy that abounds in our society: secularism. Secularism is, simply, the separation of religion from life. You compartmentalize the two. "Religion is fine for old folks and children, but for anyone who has a brain, no thanks! We are more sophisticated than to believe in myths of the Bible and that kind of thing. It really doesn't have anything to do with real life". Individuals can again masquerade as sheep and they are ravening wolves. There is a great danger in that kind of thinking.
The separation of religion from life, secularism, is a very subtle thing. It would mean that we need Jesus and we love religion, but it doesn't have anything to do with - or anything to say to - what is real. These individuals would have us believe that there is nothing that religion can contribute to our understanding of society, of economics, of politics, of any of these things. Truly, the separation of religion from life.
What would Jesus say to an individual like that? Did Jesus come into the world to build some kind of pie in the sky notions without realizing that you and I had to live in the real world and did he not give to us truths by which we could live in this real world? Secularism is a very subtle form of heresy.
And yet the people that would espouse the heresies now as they have in the last two thousand years are not people with horns and evil looks in their eyes. These are people who are, to all appearances, very benign and very good and righteous. Sometimes, some of the things that they say are true and good. But so much of what they say, if followed to its logical conclusion, would end us in destruction. So Jesus was warning us and He says, "Sometimes they look great but they're ravenous wolves."
How can you tell what is of God and what is of man? After all, the heresies are of man, not of God. How can you tell the difference? Jesus tells us very simply, "By their fruits, you will know them. "What kind of fruits would we look for if we were looking for something that is true and authentic religion? Would we look for some kind of exclusive little club that gets together on Sundays, pats one another on the back, and wishes everybody "happy alleluia"? And then goes home and does whatever they can during the week to stab their neighbor in the back? No. That wouldn't be right. "By their fruits you will know them".
Jesus our Lord intended that you and I receive the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. He gave us that Spirit to dwell in us individually and collectively in order that we can discern what is true and authentic, what is false and ignoble. Jesus our Lord has given us the Holy Spirit in order that you and I can see whether or not the community is up-building, whether it is growing, whether it prospers, whether it really does care about one another. That is of the Spirit. Anything else isn't. And even though one can masquerade in all kinds of things, it is not of God. We have to discern spirits all of the time. We have to see what is the fruit of an individual's or a movement's philosophy.
It doesn't take the proverbial rocket scientist to understand, for example, that there really was something strange about communism. In fact, the people who had to live under it said, "We don't want this." And the first time they had the opportunity, they got rid of it because it subjugated man to the State. Not to God, but to the all-powerful State. It was wrong.
You and I must discern what is right and what is wrong. You and I must discern what is the fruit of God's work and what is not. You and I can listen to someone and we can say, "Yes! That's right. This is what I believe." Sometimes we can hear something and we say, "You know, there is something off here. There is something that is not quite right". We don't have to be able to assemble a great treatise on why it is wrong. The Spirit Himself teaches us, speaks to our spirit, to say, "This is not of God. This will not build up the kingdom of God in the world. Therefore, it's not for you." You can listen to that Spirit and follow it. That is what Jesus our Lord meant.
We don't really have to be afraid of snakes. We don't have to be afraid of wolves. In fact, we do not have to be afraid of false doctrine. All we have to do is do what Jesus told us to do: take a look at it, prayerfully. "By their fruits you will know them."
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne