Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Sunday called Laetare - 26 March 2017




 
 
Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
 
Laetare Sunday 2017
 
"When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do" (John 6:5-6). 
 
In this week’s collect and lessons, we encounter Chapter Four of the ancient Church’s course of Lenten study. The first chapter taught us about Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sake of his Father’s glory and for our salvation. The second chapter laid out for us the fact that only a life of sacrifice for Christ’s sake is a proper and sufficient response on our part to the self-sacrifice of the Son of God. 
 
Last week, in the third chapter, we learned that the vows of Baptism commit us to worshipping only the One True God, who never changes. We also learned that such worship is only possible when we have been cleansed of the devil’s influence in our lives, so that we are set free by the grace of God to serve him alone in all things public and private. 
 
These lessons were not meant just for the time of Sunday service. They were intended to be the special focus of our prayers and meditations throughout the week, so that each week leads us deeper into the Christian Faith and closer to keeping a Scripturally informed and purposely holy Easter. 
 
And so, this week, we are expected to consider the cost to us of our salvation. What did we do to deserve Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection? What must we pay to receive the benefits of the one sacrifice, once offered, of the Son of God on the cross? The "short answer" to both questions is "absolutely nothing." The "long answer" is the same, but understood in a deeper humility. 
 
Today’s Gospel is St. John’s account of one of the times when our Lord Jesus Christ fed a great multitude. It is important to notice as we think about this Gospel that St. John provides the detail, "And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh" (6:4). The Passover, after all, was more than an earthly meal. It represented the supernatural Covenant of life between God and his Chosen People, and in particular the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt on the night when the angel of death "passed over" God’s people and took the first-born of the Egyptians. 
 
At the Passover, the main food was the flesh of a sacrificial lamb, whose blood also marked the doorways of the Israelites to set their houses apart from those of the Egyptians. The Passover was a prophetic meal, and not and end in itself. The meal spoke for God, not only in recalling the Exodus from Egypt, but also in promising the manner of mankind’s liberation from sin and death. The early Christians recognized, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost who descended upon them at Pentecost, that the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ were the fulfillment of the Passover’s ancient prophecy of life. 
 
For example, St. Paul wrote "…Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). He meant, of course, that the Lord’s Supper is the Christian Passover meal, the prophetic meal of a new and eternal life in Christ, to be continued until the Lord returns in glory. But he meant as well that Christian life depends in general on the historic and supernatural realities that give meaning to the visible rites and ceremonies of the Holy Communion. 
 
The Holy Communion is more than magic, and greater than magic could be. The Holy Communion is the making visible of the saving love and grace of God. Likewise, then, the miraculous meal fed to the multitude was both more than food and more than magic. It, too, was the making visible of the saving love of God and of the power of God’s grace. It, too, was a prophecy of the saving death that should come and of the spiritual food that would be fed by Christ to the multitudes of his believers forever—his own sacred Body and Blood. 
 
Thus, the Body and the Blood of Christ are both the means of salvation and the visible signs (or "fulfilled prophecies") of salvation. If this is true (and it most certainly is), then we can learn the cost to us of salvation by learning the cost of the bread that Jesus Christ fed to the multitude in the wilderness. How much did they pay? 
 
Our Lord looks out over the multitude with his disciples and asks, "When shall we buy bread, that these may eat?" This is a "teaching question," and not a "catering question," since our Lord already knows what he is going to do. He is testing his disciples to see if they understand what is happening, and as usual they don’t. The Cross, the Empty Tomb, and the Descent of the Holy Ghost are all still in their future. Thus, Philip informs our Lord that two hundred days wages ("two hundred pennyworth") won’t buy the bread that they need. 
 
And that is the point. In the middle of the wilderness (representing this fallen world of sin), the Son of God is going to feed the multitude by a free gift of bread that represents the eternal life that he offers in himself. With the Father and the Holy Ghost, but otherwise on his own, Jesus Christ will give the men what they need to live, not just today, but forever. To take the bread that Jesus Christ offers, trusting in him, is to make visible the gift of faith. Christ doesn’t force his bread down the men’s throats, but he gives them the grace to accept freely his gift of life. 
Jesus Christ, whether in the prophetic act of feeding the multitude or in the fullness of the salvation that he offers by his death and resurrection, retains all of the initiative and all of the authority. He pays, personally, the entire price of eternal life. All that remains for the multitude or for us to do is either to take, eat, and live; or to refuse to take, refuse to eat, and choose to die. 
 
The self-sacrifice and obedience that Christ’s own self-sacrifice and obedience calls from us are not the "price" or the "means" of our salvation. They are the result of our salvation. The multitude ate because Christ made it possible. We live because Christ makes it possible. Freed from sin by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we become able for the first time in our lives to live as we ought to live, to the glory of God and with a decent care for one another. Our good living is a benefit that we receive from Christ, and not something that comes from within us that allows us to "pay Christ back" for Calvary. A few moments thought, moreover, will teach us how ungrateful and insulting it would be even to suggest to Christ that living as we ought to live, as he enables us to live, is some kind of "tit for tat" that cancels out his agony and death. 
 
Our Collect today reminds us of what we truly deserve from God: that we "worthily deserve to be punished for our evil deeds." We can never place God in our debt because we will always owe him either the debts of sin and death, or the debts of eternal life and salvation. He will always remain God, and we will never replace him. Nor can God’s Law, which teaches us how to use the freedom that he has given us by grace and the sacrifice of his Son, be perverted into a list of good works that place him in our debt. 
 
As St. Paul teaches in today’s Epistle from Galatians, the Law of God is intended for free men and not for slaves. The Law of God describes the freedom of those made just by grace through faith. Those who have been freed from sin by grace will act as God’s commands, or repent as sin their failures to do so. Those who remain in sin can only have the Law in the bondage of their will, so that the Law offers them only condemnation for not being what God created them to be. And it is a sinful delusion to believe that we can keep the Law of God before God gives us the grace to do so, before we have received the benefits of Christ’s one sacrifice for the sins of all men. 
This week, then, our Lenten study is to major in grace, gratitude, and freedom. We are to purge our minds of any thought that God owes us anything when we live according to his will, because such living is God’s gift to us and not the price that we pay for admission into his kingdom. More even than this, we are to remind ourselves, in every way that we can think of, that every good thing in our lives has been made possible by the agony of our Saviour. Thus, we keep the Law of God, not as the regulations that govern slaves, but as the kindly guidance of a loving Father in heaven who desires every good thing for us and from us, so that we can live with him in grace and happiness forever. 
 
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne
Launceston on Tasmania
Australia

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