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.