Sunday, May 23, 2021

From Babel to Pentecost

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III


Texts: Genesis 11:1-11, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:7-18

Unity for its own sake, our ever pervasive human attempt to "build ourselves a city" and “make a name for ourselves,” is a foolish endeavor that will always end in the very chaos, confusion, and division it ostensibly sought to prevent. The "Human City"—the "City of Man," the "Fallen City"—and its essential nature are epitomized in the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. The late M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. [Revelation: Holy Living in an Unholy World, 1990] writes at length about its four essential elements.

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.

, the people say, “Come let us build a city for ourselves.” Here is the human-centered context for the city in which human purposes, human desires, human will are the motive power of its creation. Here is a human-created structure for life in which human-generated values and principles are the dynamic of existence. Here is humanity operating as though it were the source of its own existence. This is the essential foundation of the Human City.

Second, the people say, “Let us build a tower with its top in heaven.” Here is the human recognition of the reality of God and God’s realm of existence. Here is the human awareness that God and God’s realm are somehow vital to human existence and the human attempt to include the reality of God and God’s realm into their structure of life, but on their own terms! They seek to bring God and heaven into their structure of existence as a part of their own self-generated agenda. This is the essential character of the Human City.

Third, they say, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” Biblically, “name” has to do with the essence of what is being named; “name” has to do with the nature of being. This is why, after biblical persons have character-transforming encounters with God, their names are changed. Here is the confirmation of the interpretations given above, human beings are attempting to determine the structure of their own nature. Here is humanity seeking to create itself in its own image, to determine its own being and doing. This is the essential purpose of the Human City.

Fourth, underlying the whole activity of building the city is the fear, “lest we be scattered.” Here is the human recognition of the loss of center, the awareness of what happened when Cain went away from the presence of the Lord. Here is the human sensitivity to the fragmentation and brokenness that results when life has no center of wholeness, no focus of unity. Here is the human predicament when life has lost its true meaning, value, and purpose in God. To overcome this experience of deep alienation is the essential impetus of the Human City.

Thus the effort to build a city is the human attempt to substitute its own structure of life for life with God; the human attempt to substitute its own meaning, value, and purpose in place of those for which God created humanity. The final state of that city is that “they left off building the city.” Their self-generated attempt to avoid being scattered is thwarted by the inexorable reality of God’s sovereignty over human life. They experience the scattering that they are seeking to avoid. Their very activity itself becomes the cause of their scattering.

The Human City, therefore, is always an incomplete city; always a city that experiences the very brokenness and scattering it seeks so desperately to avoid; always a city seeking to construct a context for life on its own terms; always a city seeking to establish its own parameters of meaning, value, and purpose for human existence. The dynamics of this city are expressed in various ways in the Bible. Paul speaks of this as the “Flesh.” John calls it “the World.” The prophets denounce it as idolatry and harlotry. By all its names and images, the Human City pervades the writings of the Old and New Testaments.

This morning, of course, our Old Testament reading gives a specific name to the Human, or Fallen, City.

Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

The desire to build a city, make a name, create one’s own realm of existence where thelf is sovereign, where God is up there somewhere but never really a necessary part of day to day existence—this is the foolish endeavor of a fallen race, a people who have lost their center of wholeness and focus of unity. To compensate for such a loss, they seek an empty form of wholeness on their own terms and an imperfect form of unity for its own sake.

Now, don’t laugh at such people—because we are among them. We are all members of Adam’s fallen race. We have all been corrupted by original sin—and we have all fallen for the lie that building back Babel is an original, creative, and noble idea.

But a fallen race is a fallen race—and a merciful God will only endure so much foolishness.

"Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing," writes St. Jerome, "so, likewise, that congregation is the worst kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are. Indeed, when the tower was being built up against  God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed."

The Tower of Babel is a monument to the incompleteness of the Human City and all its accompanying symptoms: loneliness, despair, hopelessness.

"To this malady of the human heart,” writes Derek Thomas, “God pronounces a judgment — one that is only undone in the obedience of the last Adam."

Derek Thomas

At Pentecost, the disciples began to speak in foreign human languages so that visitors to Jerusalem could hear the message of reconciliation in their own tongue. It is noteworthy that just as Genesis 10 [immediately preceding today’s reading] includes a ‘table of nations’ (vv. 1–32), Luke also includes one at Pentecost (Acts 2:8–11), signaling a reversal of the Babel curse through faith in the Mediator. Peter will reflect on this later when he writes his first epistle, recording that God’s redemptive purpose is created in Jesus Christ one ‘holy nation’ (2:9). At Pentecost, an eschatological reversal takes place, arresting the effects of Babel for a season, enabling the disciples to be witnesses to Christ to the ‘nations’ in anticipation of a reality that will one day emerge.

The church is called to love in anticipation of that new existence, demonstrating God’s covenantal blessing of a restored humanity in Christ. What arises in the early church is a reflection of life lived in submission to God’s providence and in fellowship with one another. In contrast to the manipulative, self-seeking, power-hungry parody of ‘church’ as we often so sadly encounter it, the body of Christ should reflect the undoing of Babel: a fellowship called out of the world, called into union with Christ and into fellowship with one another.

With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a new city bursts forth in full flower: the Church, God’s City, drawing together from every nation, tribe, people, and tongue a people for his own possession.

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

even on my male servants and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

And I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;

the sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

"This is a solemn day for us," writes St. Augustine, "because of the coming of the Holy Ghost; the fiftieth day from the Lord’s Resurrection, seven days multiplied by seven. But multiplying seven by seven we have forty-nine. One is then added: that we may be reminded of unity."

Unity not of human origin or delusion—but unity born of God, as a witness to the nations that he is, through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit, making this old, broken world new again under the gracious reign of Jesus Christ his Son.

And let the whole church with one voice say, "AMEN!"

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Sunday after Ascension

Texts: Acts 1:15-26, 1 John 5:6-15, John 17:11b-19


Collect of the Day

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.


St. Caesarius of Arles

“There are two cities, dearest brothers,” writes Caesarius of Arles. “The first is the city of this world, the second, the city of paradise. The first city is full of labor, the second is restful. The first is full of misery, the second is blessed. If a person lives sinfully in the first, he cannot arrive in the second. We must be pilgrims in this world in order to be citizens of heaven. If one wants to love this world and remain a citizen on it, he has no place in heaven, for we prove our pilgrim status by our longing for our true country. Let no one deceive himself, beloved brothers. The true country of Christians is in heaven, not here. The angels are our fellow citizens. Our parents are the patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs. Our King is Christ. May we live, therefore, in this earthly sojourn in a manner that will enable us to long for such a country during our stay here.”

Two cities. 

Two countries. 

Two worlds. 

There is a world that is passing away and, along with it, all the temporal pleasures and desires that make it something less than the world God intended. The love of the Father for the world he created endures forever. Yes, it is the love that will abide throughout the world to come. It is the love that already abides in “whoever does the will of God,” as John says earlier in his first epistle (1 John 2:17), thus bringing forth into this world, the world that is passing away, the world that will never pass away. John writes to those in whom the Father’s love abides in varying degrees—“little children,” “young men,” “fathers”—to encourage them to continue in that love, that they might indeed “abide forever.”

This is what Jesus was praying for when he prayed not only for John and the other apostles, “but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).

The prayer of Jesus, still fresh in John’s mind when he wrote his epistle, surpasses any mere desire on our part, noble as it may seem, for some kind of organizational unity among believers across denominational or sectarian lines. The unity for which Jesus prays, the unity that manifests God’s glory to the world, is nothing less than incorporation into the divine community itself. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them,” Jesus prays to the Father, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Basil the Great

“The Lord says ‘all mine are yours,’ as if he were submitting his lordship over creation to the Father,” writes Basil the Great, “but he also adds ‘yours are mine,’ to show that the creating command came from the Father to him. The Son did not need help to accomplish his work, nor are we to believe that he received a separate commandment for each portion of his work. Such extreme inferiority would be entirely inadequate to his divine glory. Rather, the Word was full of his Father’s grace. He shines forth from the Father and accomplishes everything according to his parent’s plan. He is not different in essence, nor is he different in power from his Father, and if their power is equal, then their works are the same. Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. All things were made through him and all things were created through him and for him, not as if he were discharging the service of a slave, but instead he creatively fulfills the will of his Father.”

So, as Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one,” he is praying for a unity that is beyond mere human conception. It is the unity established by the Father before the world began; a bond of eternal love between the Father and the Son, into which are incorporated all to whom the Son has made the Father’s name known, that is, all to whom the Son has imparted the divine nature through the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

To his apostles, Jesus imparted the very word that is truth, the same Word of God that he himself made incarnate. He “kept them in [the Father’s] name” and “guarded them” so that “not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12).

Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh, has entered into this world that is passing away and has opened for us the door into the world that will never pass away. He has shown us the way of truth and, by his example of self-giving and self-sacrifice, has demonstrated that truth cannot exist apart from love. 

Pilate will later cynically ask, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Jesus has the answer. “Your word,” that is, the Word of God the Father, “is truth” (John 17:17). It is the Word that Jesus himself has made incarnate. He not only gives the answer, he is the answer. Jesus himself, the very Word made flesh, is the embodiment of the truth, the full revelation of the will and purpose of God from the foundation of the world. To be “sanctified in the truth” is to be sanctified in Christ, made holy as the Father is holy through the truth abiding in us through the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), whom God has sent to lead us in the way of righteousness.

To abide in Christ, the Word made flesh, the truth incarnate, is “to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). That way is the difficult road of selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love. For, as John reminds us, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling” (1 John 2:9-10) because the light in which he abides is Christ himself.

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another. Only in Christ are the two made one; and only in Christ may we be sanctified in the truth to shine forth the glorious light of his love.


Sunday, May 9, 2021

We love because God loved -- first!

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Acts 11:19-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:9-17


Collect of the Day

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


“God is waiting for you to make the first move,” read the sign outside the church as I drove by. Immediately, I thought to myself, “There is a church that is going to be stuck in neutral for a very long time.”

If your “god” is one who is waiting for “you” to make the first move, then your "god" is not the God we encounter in Scripture. Certainly, it is not the God who has revealed himself in and through Jesus Christ.

There’s just no getting around it. The Bible teaches that God has already made the first move.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation four our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

We love because God loved – first!

He sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

That’s a big word: propitiation. A decent enough definition would be:

. . . that by which God is rendered propitious, i.e., by which it becomes consistent with his character and government to pardon and bless the sinner. The propitiation does not procure his love or make him loving; it only renders it consistent for him to exercise his love towards sinners.

In other words, “God is love,” as John says (4:8). But how is it consistent with his holiness, with his character, with his justice, to love undeserving sinners like us? Must we appease him in order to earn his love? Must we make the first move?


The fact of the matter is, we can’t. 

Our sin has rendered us incapable of doing anything to satisfy the demands of God’s righteousness. But “God is love” and, in love, he has made the first move.

Christ himself, the very Son of God, is “the propitiation for our sins.” He became our substitute. He assumed our obligations. He made atonement for and covered our guilt. He took upon himself the guilt for and endured, on the cross, the punishment for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:11-12)

We can only love one another when we are filled and overflowing with the love of God. That is the little detail that so many people who talk so tirelessly about the importance of loving one another always seem to overlook when they offer such misguided counsel as, “You have to love one another and love your neighbor so that God will love you and bless you and give you nice things.”

You turn on your TV, listen to your radio, or most likely today, go on the internet and you hear that very message from so many false teachers who think they know what they’re talking about even though they rarely, if ever, open their Bible.

The truth is, all they are doing is repeating the nonsense from that church sign.

“God is waiting for you to make the first move.”

That’s really all they’re saying—and they’re not encouraging their people. They’re scolding them, fussing at them, because they’re not doing enough to make God happy; and because God’s not happy, the church isn’t growing. The budget isn’t being met. New programs can’t be started. We’re just sitting here, doing nothing, wasting God’s time.

At its root, it is the same tired old lie: You can make a difference. You can change the world. You can be like God (Where have we heard that before?) because, after all, it’s all about you! God is just sitting back there waiting. It’s up to you to choose.

Jesus would beg to differ.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask in the Father’s name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16)

No, it’s not about you. It’s all about him.

God does not love you because you have done something to deserve it.

You do not bear fruit because you have done a better job of loving than the next person.

God loves you because that is who he is.

You bear fruit because he chose you and appointed you to do so for the glory of his name!

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

“This is my commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Truth and love cannot abide apart from one another, and we cannot love one another apart from God, who first loved us and gave his Son to die for us.

To him be the glory, forever and ever.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Love. Obedience. Promise.

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III 

Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Deuteronomy 4:32-40, 1 John 3:11-24, John 14:15-21


Collect of the Day

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Do you notice a common thread running through the readings this week? Listen carefully to these choice excerpts from Deuteronomy, 1 John, and John’s Gospel:

“Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time.” (Deuteronomy 4:40)

“Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 John 3:24)

“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21)

Now, this common thread could be summed up in several different ways, but I would like for us to think about it through the lens of three simple words:




“If you love me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “you will keep my commandments.”

And, in case you have any questions about what he means by obeying his commandments, John reminds us in his first Epistle, “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

Love for Christ is tied with obedience to his commandments, that is, to love Christ is to love one another as he has loved us, and with that love and that obedience comes the promise.

“And I will ask the Father,” says Jesus, “and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Don’t miss that little hint from Jesus that the promised Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, is already indwelling his disciples. It certainly did not escape the attention of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine
“How, then, did the apostles love, but in the Holy Spirit?” he asks. “And yet they are commanded to love him and keep his commandments before they have received him and, in fact, in order to receive him. And yet, without having that Spirit, they certainly could not love him and keep his commandments. We are therefore to understand that he who loves already has the Holy Spirit, and by what he has he becomes worthy of a fuller possession, that by having more he may love more. The disciples, therefore, already had that Holy Spirit whom the Lord promised, for without him they could not call him Lord. But they had him not as yet in the way promised by the Lord. . . . He was yet to be given them in an ampler measure.”




Yet, without the promise, it is impossible to obey the commandment to love. So, in the wondrous economy of God, the promise is fulfilled before the commandment is given. Love and obedience are not conditions for receiving the promise. Rather, they are the manifestation of its fulfillment—and that manifestation is not merely an abstract concept.

“And he who loves me,” Jesus says, “will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

The whole of the law is summed up in love—love God, love one another—and that love is made manifest, fulfilled, in absolute perfection in Jesus Christ.

“I will not leave you as orphans,” he promises. “I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

The whole of the law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and only in Jesus Christ. We cannot obey his commandment to love apart from him and his Spirit indwelling us. The law cannot save us. Only Jesus can.

St. Cyril
“It is impossible,” writes Cyril of Alexandria, “for one’s soul to accomplish anything good, or to have power over its own passions or to escape the great subtlety of the devil’s snare if the soul is not fortified by the grace of the Holy Spirit and has Christ himself within it . . . . Christ promises nothing less than that he will be present and will help those who believe on him through the Spirit, even though he ascends into the heavens after his resurrection from the dead.”




“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

The Spirit dwells with every believer, that the love of Christ may be manifest in their lives to the glory of the Father who, out of his boundless grace, fulfills the promise even before giving the commandment.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Good Shepherd's double-edged sword

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Ezekiel 34:1-10, 1 John 3:1-10, John 10:11-16

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”


Collect of the Day

O God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Three weeks after Easter Sunday and we’re still talking about him. Of course, this is his church, so we never stop talking about Jesus. After all, if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be here.

This Sunday, in particular, we talk about him as “the good shepherd.” Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we observe what has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

The Good Shepherd is a comfortable, familiar image of Jesus, even for those who live in areas where shepherding is not a common occupation. 

A sermon on Jesus the Good Shepherd might not be such a challenge except for one unavoidable factor. In our liturgical tradition, we don’t get to pick the biblical texts from which we preach. They are chosen for us, appointed texts for each Sunday of the year, systematically laid out for us in a three-year cycle in the lectionary. For this particular Sunday, over that three-year period, Jesus’s discourse on the Good Shepherd in John 10 is broken up into three different parts, seemingly with three different emphases if each one is taken in isolation.

It might appear, at first glance, that the emphasis for this year would be church unity, “one flock, one shepherd,” but that would be anachronistic. We have to consider the wider context if we want to understand what Jesus means by this and everything else he is saying and to whom he is saying it.

We take great comfort in hearing Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

But these words are a double-edged sword when we consider to whom they were originally spoken. To get the big picture, you have to go back to chapter 9. There, John provides a rather lengthy account of Jesus healing a man born blind, the man being subsequently reviled and persecuted by the Pharisees, and Jesus declaring, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

To which the Pharisees respond, “Are we also blind?”

Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

That is how chapter 9 ends. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus still speaking, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”

The “you” to whom he is speaking is the very same “you” who asked him, “Are we also blind?”

This entire discourse is directed to the Pharisees—and they take no comfort from Jesus’s words, especially when he presents himself as “the good shepherd” in contrast to how he characterizes them.

“He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”

To the Pharisees who, behaving quite unlike shepherds, had been persecuting those, like the man born blind, whom they should have been protecting as members of their flock, Jesus says, “You are a bunch of hired hands. You don’t care for the sheep. You not only abandon them to the wolf. You even go so far as to throw them to the wolf.”

Gregory the Great describes these pious phonies very well. “There are some who love earthly possessions more than the sheep and do not deserve the name of a shepherd,” he writes. “He is called a hireling and not a shepherd because he does not pasture the Lord’s sheep out of his deep love for them but for a temporal reward. That person is a hireling who holds the place of a shepherd but does not seek to profit souls. He is eager for earthly advantages, rejoices in the honor of preferment, feeds on temporal gain and enjoys the deference offered him by other people.”

How many times does Jesus say as much about the Pharisees? Again, they are his primary audience here. To us, his words bring comfort. To them, they brought judgment.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Not only will I protect my own from the wolf, Jesus says. I will throw myself to the wolf and give my life that the sheep may live—and not only these sheep that you now see, but others, as well. Lost sheep waiting to be found, longing to be welcomed home into the one flock under the one shepherd.

These words are all the more powerful when you realize Jesus speaks them to the very people who will demand he be put to death, proving all the more that they are false shepherds, blind guides, hypocrites, and hirelings who care not for the sheep, but for their own self- preservation.

To these, his enemies, the good shepherd will surrender himself for the sake of his beloved sheep.

“For the sake of his flock,” writes Basil of Seleucia, “the shepherd was sacrificed as though he were a sheep. He did not refuse death. He did not destroy his executioners as he had the power to do, for his passion was not forced on him. He laid down his life for his sheep of his own free will. ‘I have the power to lay it down,’ he said, ‘and I have the power to take it up again.’ By his passion he made atonement for our evil passions, by his death he cured our death, by his tomb he robbed the tomb, by the nails that pierced his flesh he destroyed the foundations of hell.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Taste and see

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Third Sunday of Eastertide

Texts: Micah 4:1-5, 1 John 1:1-2:2, Luke 24:36-49

 “And as they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, ‘Peace to you!’” (Luke 24:36)


Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you gave your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly living: Give us grace thankfully to receive his inestimable benefits, and daily to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


“The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only,” writes Scott Hoezee.  “We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge.  We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness.  No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.”

That’s why, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are still talking about it or, rather, talking about him . . . and don’t be surprised when, as we talk about him, he shows up.

“As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’”

To borrow from one of my old seminary professors, who probably borrowed it from someone else, do you know the difference between Christianity and every other religion?

Our founder is alive!

Confucius is dead. Buddha is dead. Mohammed is dead.

Jesus Christ is standing among us, right now!

Ignatius of Antioch

“I myself am convinced and believe,” says Ignatius of Antioch, “that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. When he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, ‘Take hold of me. Touch me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ They immediately touched him. They were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason, they despised death itself and proved its victors.”

The disciples then could see and touch and feel. They could even share food with him—not just here but also in the immediately preceding account of the travelers on the road to Emmaus when, upon entering their home, Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread. There is also John’s account at the end of his Gospel with Jesus sharing a breakfast of broiled fish with his disciples.

Seeing, touching, feeling, eating. What more proof did they need? This is no ghost; no disembodied spirit. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the man they saw die on a cross three days earlier. But here he is alive, standing among them, inviting them to see his wounds, to touch him, to feel him, and share a meal with them.

But that was then, and this is now. How do we know that he is here among us today?

“The truth is,” writes Hoezee, “that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with ‘Peace be with you’ is another matter . . .).  We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.”

Recall Jesus’s words to Thomas last week, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Augustine would say, “What a tremendous favor grace has done us! We have neither seen nor touched, and we have believed.”

But is it all invisible to us? Do we not also have some visible, tangible, even edible sign of Christ’s presence in our midst?

Don’t ever make the mistake of overlooking the significance of food in the biblical story. From the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, it was food that gave life, and food that brough about the fall. Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, brought Abraham bread and wine. The Israelites ate the Passover meal as they prepared to leave Egypt and then received manna while in the wilderness. 

Jesus fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish. He ate the Passover meal with his disciples the night before his death and instituted the meal that we have continued down through the ages as the sign and symbol of his presence among us.

It comes as no surprise that the Emmaus travelers recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread; no surprise that the definitive proof of his resurrection was his partaking of a piece of broiled fish.

Our faith is not in some nebulous ghostly presence. Our hope is not an eternity as disembodied spirits.

Our faith is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen bodily from the dead, “the firstfuits,” as Paul says, “of those who have fallen asleep.”

Yes, because he is truly risen, death is not a permanent state. Those who fall asleep in Christ will also awake in his presence.

Our hope is eternity in the presence of Christ, sharing with him the victory that is the resurrection—all of us being renewed and restored in every way: spirit, soul, and body!

We come to the table and that faith is so real we can touch and feel it.

We come to the table and that hope is so close we can taste it.

Whenever I teach the kids about communion, I try to keep it simple—as simple as so great a mystery can be, of course.

I tell them the bread is Jesus’s body, the cup is Jesus’ blood, and when we eat the bread and drink the cup, Jesus is with us.

As the Psalmist says, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 11, 2021

The center of the wide circumference

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Second Sunday of Eastertide (Thomas Sunday/Quasimodo), 11 April 2021

Texts: Isaiah 26:1-9, 19; 1 John 5:1-5, John 20:19-31

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


Collect of the Day

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Thomas C. Oden
1931 - 2016

“We are searching for the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience,” wrote the late Thomas Oden in his classic work, After Modernity . . . What? I may have told you Oden’s story, or some of it, before. He was hardly a model of orthodoxy when he started out as a theologian. In fact, he was very much into theological fads during the heyday of theological fads, the 1960’s and early 1970’s. But then, something happened. He started reading the Church Fathers. He started getting in touch with the classical faith—and he came to realize that everything he needed to know about Christianity he could learn from the writings of the first five centuries of the undivided Church. So, it became his goal as a theologian, he often liked to say, “to make no new contribution to theology.”

You can understand, then, why he would say, “Suppose the prophets  were right, that God's will is revealed through historical events, and hence that God's will is finally knowable only at the conclusion of the drama of history. Theology would then be intent on trying to understand, if possible the anticipated end of the process, beyond all current historical alienations, finitude, blindness, and sin.”

Indeed, searching for “the center of the wide circumference of Christian experience” is not going to lead you to anything new. Rather, it is going to lead you to that end that makes all things new.

Suppose that Isaiah was right when he said, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

Now, don’t just suppose the prophet is right. Believe he is right. Have faith that the Word of God is accurate—and that will lead you right to the center.

“What is the center?” Oden asks. “Resurrection,” he affirms, “as interpersonal meeting with the living Christ. Not resurrection as idea or past event but resurrection as a currently experienced interpersonal encounter. This is why interpersonal meeting has been the central feature of Christian theology from its inception.”

It is, of course, another man named Thomas, one who knew Jesus personally, who drives this point home so very succinctly. The hardcore skeptic—“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”—becomes the humble and devoted believer—“My Lord and my God!”

But must one see to believe? Jesus acknowledges that Thomas believes because he has seen. But then he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Believing without seeing—without having the benefit of the Risen Christ in bodily form standing right in front of you, pointing to his wounds and saying, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side.”—that is taking faith to the next level.

Not even Thomas would have that benefit forever. Yet, he carried the Gospel all the way to India, and there gave his life for his Lord and his God.

“We today must learn to think historically in the Hebraic sense if we are to make sense of this central proclamation of Christianity,” Oden says. “Seen in this frame of reference, the resurrection is so decisive that the importance of all other theological issues pales beside it. It focuses on nothing less than the final revelation of the will of God in history.”

It should be obvious but, in a day when even people who flout their clergy credentials say otherwise, it needs to be shouted from the mountaintops. 

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing else even comes close.

“The earliest church,” Oden continues, “reasoned in this way: In Jesus' resurrection the end is already present, in an anticipated sense. Thus the will of God is finally revealed. So to participate in Christ is already to share in the events of the last days. It all made reasonable sense, seen from within the assumptions of Jewish historical reasoning, transformed by a living encounter with the resurrected Jesus.”

There is nothing more transcendent, nothing more decisive, in all of human history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And history—all of history from the beginning to the present day to the end that will come on a day known only to God—makes no sense without it.

It made no sense to the disciples “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” They were meeting behind closed and locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” 

Jesus showed up and said, “Peace be with you.”

Then, it all made sense.

It made no sense for Thomas, who “was not with them when Jesus came,” to hear the other disciples saying, “We have seen the Lord.”

Eight days later, Jesus showed up again and he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put your hand out, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Then, it all made sense.

John calls it “the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” 

It is the faith expressed by Thomas when he said to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 

It is the faith that lives on beyond the testimony of those who have seen because Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This “wide circumference of Christian experience” has a very definite center—and that center holds together the entirety of history under the sovereign will and purpose of a loving, merciful, and gracious God.

The truth that never gets old and is always and everywhere making all things new:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, April 4, 2021

"He has risen. He is not here."

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Easter Sunday, 4 April 2021

Texts: Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4, Mark 16:1-8

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, who through you only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of our Lord's resurrection, may, by your life-giving Spirit, be delivered from sin and raised from death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

* * * * *

“Salvation is the great theme of Scripture,” writes the Reformed pastor Kevin DeYoung. “If we can plot the biblical storyline as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, then clearly it is that third act which dominates the pages of special revelation. Strictly speaking, the Bible details creation in two chapters (Genesis 1-2), the fall in one chapter (Genesis 3), and consummation in two chapters (Revelation 21-22). The other 1,184 chapters are about redemption.”

If that much of the Bible is devoted to that one theme, it should be beyond comprehension that so many, during various periods of history (and we must include the present among them) have read the Bible cover to cover and have somehow missed it. Ironically, the ones who have missed it seem to be the most prolific during the week leading up to Easter—the very time in which we are supposed to remember and recall the ordeal of the Passion, all the agony and sorrow our Lord endured in order to redeem us. In one article published this week, it was suggested that Jesus had doubts, even sinful doubts, about who he was and what he was to accomplish.* In another, the death and resurrection of Christ came in a distant second to the author’s favorite ideological agenda.

Kevin DeYoung’s article was the exception to the rule this week. So many others were just horrendous exercises in missing the point.

“There is a reason that all four Gospels culminate with the death and resurrection of Jesus,” DeYoung writes. “No other biography spends a third of its time detailing the subject’s last week. But the Gospels are not ordinary biographies. They tell the story of victory in defeat, of triumph through tragedy. Make no mistake: the point of Jesus’s life was to die, the point of his death was to rise again, and the point of his resurrection was to justify believing sinners (Rom. 4:25). Upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist announced, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). From even before his birth, the mission of the Christ was to save sinners. ‘You shall call his name Jesus,’ the angel told Joseph, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). No wonder Jesus understood his own mission as coming ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served,’ he told his disciples, ‘but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45).”

To the household of Cornelius, Peter, in our reading from Acts this morning, said, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It was true then. It is true now. It has always been the truth that turns sorrow to joy, despair to hope, and death to everlasting life.

“Do not be alarmed,” says the young man to the women who came to the tomb. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”

Crucified, dead, buried. Buried in this very tomb, the entrance sealed by a stone you thought could not be rolled away. 

Are you seeking Jesus? Well, ladies, you’ve come to the wrong place.

“He has risen; he is not here.”

Here is a place for the dead. You are seeking him who has defeated death. You are seeking him who is alive and will never die again. 

You are seeking him over whom death has no claim!

“He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

See with your own eyes that death could not hold him. The grave could not keep him. Hell could not defeat him.

“But,” don’t waste too much time here, “go, tell his disciples and Peter,” yes even Peter, that coward that denied him three times, because he still has work for him with Cornelius and a whole bunch of other people, “that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

With all the sorrow and agony of the last few days, maybe you forgot that little detail—but he did tell you, no less than three times, that he would die and, after three days, he would rise again.

“See the place where they laid him.”

You can see he is not here. He is on his way to Galilee. You will see him there. I know you are afraid now, but again, “Do not be alarmed.”

Go, tell his disciples. Go, tell the world. Go, announce the good news that, for every sinner, there is salvation in the name of him who died and rose again.

“We will not be Bible people,” DeYoung concludes, “or Jesus people, or gospel people—if we are not salvation-for-sinners people. Though some may call it a soterian gospel or an individualistic gospel, the unavoidable reality of Scripture is that at the heart of the message of the cross is the simple, wonderful, glorious good news that Christ saves sinners like you and me. And if this message, and all that took place to accomplish what it announces, represents the climax of redemptive history—indeed, if all of history is about redemption—then we are right to conclude that this soteriological emphasis must shape the sound of our preaching, the priority of our ministry, and the mission of the church. . . . The mercy of God is the theme of our song because the salvation of sinners is the story of Scripture. Let us sing it, say it, and savor it—this week and for eternity.”

Thanks be to God.


*Denny Burke has written a helpful response to the article in question.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus"

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fifth Sunday in Lent

21 March 2021 

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 4:14-5:10, John 12:20-36

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)


Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



“It was not while bare and not participating in the limits of his emptying that God the Word became our model,” writes Cyril of Alexandria, “but ‘in the days of his flesh.’ Then, quite legitimately, he could employ human limits and pray insistently and shed tears and even appear somehow in need of a savior and learn obedience, though a Son. The inspired author is, so to speak, stupefied by the mystery that the Son, existing by nature truly and endowed with the glories of divinity, should so abase himself that he endured the low estate of our impoverished humanity.”

The “inspired author” of Hebrews is, says Cyril, “stupefied by the mystery” of the Incarnation. How could the very Son of God “so abase himself” as to identify with the lowest of the low, an “impoverished humanity,” scarred and corrupted by sin, far removed from the glories of the heavenly court, helpless to save itself from certain death?

Stupefying, indeed. How can anyone be anything but stupefied by something so glorious?

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

Glorified, says Proclus of Constantinople, “referring to the cross. For from it the power of the Lord was made known, [because] it changed the shame into glory—


the insult into honor,

the curse into blessing,

the gall into sweetness,

the vinegar into milk,

the slap in the face into freedom,

death into life.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

But how is he to be glorified?

Glorified through one of the most inhuman forms of suffering every devised, for Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.”

As if we needed this to be explained—and many of us do—John adds this little footnote, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.”

There is no doubt that Jesus’ original audience knew what he meant about being “lifted up.” Their reaction says it all.

“We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?”

They knew he was talking about dying. They knew he was talking about dying on a cross.

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work, is it? Isn’t the Christ, God’s Anointed One, supposed to remain with us forever? If you die, how can you remain forever? How can you be who you say you are if your mission is “to be lifted up?”

Don’t miss the irony of connecting “the kind of death he was going to die” with being “lifted up from the earth.”

Jesus, “the Son of Man” and “the Christ” was to be “glorified” through “the kind of death he was going to die,” and now “the hour” of his glorification had come, signified by the fact that he was being sought out by “some Greeks” who were “among those who went up to worship at the feast.”

Not Jews. Not even Samaritans. But Greeks, the quintessential Gentiles, the “God fearers” who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast even though they would not be allowed to participate fully.

“Sir,” they say to Philip, “we wish to see Jesus.”

You might simply say their curiosity was peaked. They had heard so much about this Jesus since they had arrived. They respected the Jewish people. They wanted to know more about their faith but, up until now, they had been kept at arm’s length.

Maybe, just maybe, this Jesus was the answer they had been looking for.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

It is a pivotal moment. 

On two previous occasions, John says the authorities could have had the opportunity to arrest Jesus but they did not “because his hour had not yet come.”

Now, informed by Andrew and Philip that “some Greeks” are asking to see him, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

“Glorified,” meaning, as we have already seen, the cross.

“Now is my soul troubled,” Jesus says. “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

To what “purpose” does Jesus refer? Nothing less than his own death—for that is what he came to do. The full plan and purpose of the Father, who has glorified and will glorify his name again, cannot be accomplished in any other way.

“Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says, “now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Jesus is giving away the ending, isn’t he? He’s telling us that, despite all appearances, his death will not be the end of him, but of his greatest enemy.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Through his death, he will draw all people into his embrace of eternal life.


“He took up humanity into himself,” writes Irenaeus, “the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering and the Word being made human, thus summing up all things in himself: so that as in supercelestial, spiritual and invisible things, the Word of God is supreme, so also in things visible and corporeal he might possess the supremacy, and, taking to himself the preeminence, as well as constituting himself head of the church, he might draw all things to himself at the proper time.”

That, in the end, is his purpose. It is the grand and glorious purpose of God: the perfect and complete redemption of his creation.

And what is required of you to be included in that redemption?

Only that simple faith expressed in the words of those “Greeks” who came to the festival.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”


Sunday, March 14, 2021

"Let him go up"

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 2 Chronicles 36:14-23, Ephesians 2:4-10, John 6:1-5

Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.”


Collect of the Day

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen


A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t have a hand in writing all of this.

The history of ancient Israel, from the rise of King Saul to the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah, is one of unrelenting faithfulness on the part of God and of unending failure on the part of his chosen people.

Israel was to be a beacon of hope to all the nations, calling them out of the darkness of their pagan ways and into the light of the one true and living God. But instead of shining the light, she allowed herself to be overcome by the darkness.

There were some bright spots along the way, to be sure. There was David, the man after God’s own heart, but even he was not without grave moral shortcomings. There was Solomon with all his wisdom, but he was not immune to the temptations of the flesh. There was Josiah, the great reformer who died tragically young because God did not will for him to see his kingdom fall.

Faithfulness and failure always went hand in hand throughout the history of Israel, the northern kingdom that fell some years earlier, and Judah, the southern kingdom that, from time to time, did show some signs of life. God, being faithful, “sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

Even the patience of God has its limits. The end finally came, as God “brought up against them the King of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged.”

The consequences of disobedience, of failure to be the people God called them to be, were harsh and severe. Even the very house of God would not survive—for if it could not be pure and undefiled, it might as well not exist at all.

“And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels.”

And it’s not as if God hadn’t warned his people that such a punishment was coming if they persisted in their disobedience.

“He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.”

So great was the disobedience of the people that the land had been defiled and had to be purified—and that meant it had to be left desolate for seventy years. Yet, in that desolation, were being planted the seeds of restoration.

“All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath.”

The land was given rest in order that it might be prepared for the return of purified people.

And, as he had foretold the downfall, so he had foreseen the restoration.

Cyrus of Persia

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,
that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.”’”

And who were those “among his people,” God’s people, the LORD’s chosen ones? They were the ones who were exiles in the land, who wept by the waters of Babylon as they remembered Zion. They were down and out in a foreign land. To them came the call: “Let him go up.”

These are not merely the words of Cyrus king of Persia. They are the very word of “the LORD, the God of heaven.”

To those who are down, it is time to go up. It is time to go home.

A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t have a hand in writing all of this.

In fact, don’t tell me that God didn’t write the whole thing.

From its beginning, he knew its end; from its end, he knew its beginning. Everything in between came as no surprise.

All that will come after, he will know in advance, as well. The people will return, rebuild the temple, resettle the land, and start messing up all over again. Only this time, he won’t send a succession of prophets. He will send his own Son.

They won’t just refuse to listen to him.

They won’t just reject him.

They will nail him to a cross.

They will bury him in a tomb.

The light of the world slain, so it appears, by the powers of darkness.

But, on the first day of the week, early in the morning following the day of Sabbath rest, the true return from exile—of which all others before had only been pale shadows—bursts forth in glorious, everlasting day.

Up from the grave, he arose!

A tragedy that ends on a high note.

A tale of despair that ends with a word of hope.

A story of death that ends with the promise of life.

Don’t tell me that God didn’t write this whole thing.

Don’t tell me that God is not the Author of life everlasting.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raise us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God.”

To anyone in the grip of despair, flailing away in the dark as sin pushes you down, hear the word of the LORD, the word of him who sent his Son to take your punishment upon himself:

“Let him go up.”


Sunday, March 7, 2021

If we were not wretches, we would not be here today

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. James A. Gibson III

Third Sunday in Lent, 7 March 2021

Texts: Exodus 20:1-21, Romans 7:12-25, John 2:13-22

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25a)


Collect of the Day

Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Some of the worst hymns in the history of the church were written during the period between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, during the heyday of the “Social Gospel” era. They were bad not because they were difficult to sing or because they were matched with cumbersome tunes and melodies. In fact, many of them, on the surface, have a very majestic sound and quality to them.

They were bad not because, taken individually, they contained any particularly objectionable material.

They were bad because, taken as whole body of work, in historical context, they were, and still are, generic and theologically vacuous.

Too many of them begin with “God of” this or “God of” that—a most impersonal deity.

“God of Grace and God of Glory” is a classic example. We still sing this hymn today with a lot of gusto. It is, in many ways, a stirring hymn. But to draw out of it any spiritual energy, you have to lay aside the historical background behind its composition and its composer.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Harry Emerson Fosdick was, by any measure, a heretic of the first order. He wrote the hymn on the occasion of the dedication of his new church, founded and underwritten by none other than John D. Rockefeller, for the specific purpose of the propagation of Fosdick’s different gospel.

Scott Wilson (A Concise History of Preaching) describes Fosdick’s preaching in this way:

After floundering for his first years as a preacher, he devised a homiletic based in pastoral counseling that made preaching an adventure for him. Every sermon was to start with the “real problems of people” and was to “meet their difficulties, answer their questions, confirm their noblest faiths and interpret their experiences in sympathetic, wise and understanding co-operation.”

In other words, a lot of pop psychology and self-help with minimal Scripture and only used, when employed, to illustrate a pre-determined point. That method of preaching is exactly backward. You begin with the Scriptural text and move to the point. You don’t begin with the point and move to the text.

You might say I am using Harry Emerson Fosdick today to illustrate my pre-determined point. I would plead guilty to that, except for the fact that when I began writing this sermon, I had no idea I would even mention the man. But it was today’s text from Romans that started me down the path that led to my mentioning him and his stirring but flawed hymn.

“Wretched man that I am!” Paul writes. “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

 In the course of a service of worship, from its rudimentary planning all the way to the final blessing and dismissal, the Holy Spirit is at work—bringing together the collects and prayers, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the sermon, the gathering at the Table—all the elements of worship into a cohesive act of praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God.

That is always the case—every Sunday, every week. But there are some weeks when it is more clearly discernable. This is such a week—from the collect (which we will get to in a moment) to the readings to the hymns.

At the close of our service this morning we will sing “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” a hymn written barely 20 years ago. Yet, listen to these words, and hear the clear echo of Paul’s words:

How deep the Father’s love for us, How vast beyond all measure, That he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure!

Hymnwriters today seem to be rediscovering the power of biblical language. Hymnwriters of old were never afraid to us it.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

When you understand the history behind these words, they are even more powerful. John Newton was very much a wretch. He was the captain of a slave ship. But after a powerful conversion experience, he became an Anglican priest. One of his parishioners was a member of Parliament named William Wilberforce, the man who was almost singlehandedly responsible for the abolition of the British slave trade.

John Newton
“Amazing Grace” was John Newton’s testimony—and it has become the testimony of so many others—to the power of God to save and deliver even the worst of sinners. Late in his life, he said, “Although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

That’s not speaking about “real problems of people” but, rather, the problem and the solution, the only solution, that brings life and health and peace to every person. And is that not, again, merely a reiteration of the words of Paul?

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Romans 7 is a difficult passage, not only to preach but to read—because not a single one of us can read it without realizing we are, indeed, wretched. There is no comfort in the law because, as Paul says, “the law is spiritual” but we are “of the flesh, sold under sin.” Slaves, if you will, to sin. We are wretches. We are bound to do those things we know we ought not to do, yet we do them anyway.

If that sounds like circular reasoning, well, it is—because sin makes us go around in circles, bouncing off the walls, tying us up in knots, burying us in self-pity and self-loathing—restless souls longing to be free, but knowing we cannot free ourselves.

“Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself,” we prayed earlier, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”

Augustine of Hippo

The language of this prayer, particularly the first part, is borrowed from St. Augustine, another wretch of a man that God made his treasure. In his
Confessions, his spiritual autobiography, he withholds nothing in bearing his soul to God about his own disordered affections that manifested themselves in some pretty wild youthful indiscretions.

I cared for nothing but to love and be loved. But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of friendship. Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust. Love and lust together seethed within me. In my tender youth they swept me away over the precipice of my body’s appetites and plunged me in the whirlpool of sin. More and more I angered you, unawares. For I had been deafened by the clank of my chains, the fetters of the death which was my due to punish the pride of my soul. I strayed still farther from you and you did not restrain me. I was tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word. How long it was before I learned that you were my true joy! You were silent then, and I went on my way, farther from you, proud in my distress and restless in fatigue, sowing more and more seeds whose only crop was grief.

That is one paragraph in a 13-volume, 350-page work. Augustine, like Paul and like John Newton, was certainly not born a Christian. No one is. We are all born wretches. We don’t like to hear that. We don’t like to be reminded of it. But if we were not all born wretches, born in sin, far gone from original righteousness, we would not all be here today, to cry out as Paul and Augustine and Newton and countless others have done, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders; Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers. It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished; His dying breath has brought me life; I know that it is finished.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.