Sermon transcript, 15 February 2015
Responding to God’s voice: for the restoration of all creation by Bp. Elmer
Joshua 1:7-9, Psalm 143, Romans 12:1-18, John 15:9-16
What I intend to share with you this morning is a combination of the season we are in, and what we are celebrating and doing today. We have come to the conclusion of the season of Epiphany, which ends the theme of manifestation. There should be no shadow of doubt in our hearts by this time that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the Living God – no doubt, no question in our hearts. Many of us have experienced one way or another at some time God’s manifestation – whether healing, personal encounter or restoration…
Hearing God’s voice
The regular readings today are about the Transfiguration, which is the time when God Himself out of heaven uttered the words that the disciples heard: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (II Peter 1:17) The same set of readings talks about the Transfiguration of Jesus, in which He was summoned up the mountain (Mark 9:2), led and prompted by the Holy Spirit, for the reason that we should hear God’s voice, and to make present the restoration and the hope of creation. When you tell people that you have heard the voice of God, it is as if they ask, “What is His number? What is His area code? Or what is His email address? So that I can hear what God is saying too.” Some people are surprised that God speaks, He has a voice. People often say, “I’ve heard about, but I‘ve never heard God’s voice.” It’s common sense: it’s hard to talk to someone who talks all the time so that you don’t have an opportunity to say something. Some people would be wise enough to say, “God may like to speak something, so I will keep my mouth shut.” It’s amazing that when you do that, God enables you to hear Him speak. This is what sometimes we call His still, small voice; there are occasions when we hear Him speak in many different ways, but sometimes we hear His still, small voice.
There was a time when I sent someone to Canada; I was fasting and praying and I had two people in my mind, and I said, “God, I’m not going to leave this time until You tell me the name of the person whom I am to send.” As you know as a Bishop it is not easy for those people around you, because they have families and children, and I have a Priest in Berlin who has ten children, so you know how difficult it would be… At the same time I was taking the opportunity to study, and all of a sudden something said to me, “Go to the book”, and in one of the books that I had with me the name at the top of the page was Arthur A. Just; and He said, “That is the person who is going to Canada”. So I turned to Fr. Arthur and said, “You are going to Canada”, and he said, “I’m available” – because I heard God’s voice.
When we chose Fr. Dana to be the Rector of the church here… the story goes back to 1996 when Fr. Dana, former Archbishop Sly and I were heading somewhere in London, and Fr. Dana said to me that he had a heart to minister here. When we were praying for the person who would be the Rector here, God reminded me of that incident, almost twenty years ago. As clearly as I can see Fr. Dana, there is no question in my heart and mind that he is the one who is supposed to be the Rector here. You are obeying God’s will. There is no question in my heart that we are doing what God wants us to do.
Fr. Dana, Edye and the children might say “This is quite a lot of sacrifice.” Everything that we do for God has to be a sacrifice: if it is not a sacrifice, it is not acceptable. Today we sang the wonderful hymn “Trust and obey…” Quite often when we sing this, we have Abraham in mind: he was able to offer Isaac on the altar without any hesitation. In the evangelical world, Abraham is the father of faith. People say, “I want to follow Abraham; I want to emulate his example; so I’m going to offer everything on the altar.” The difference between many of us and Abraham is that when we offer something on altar, we play with ourselves: “I’m offering my life”; while Abraham brought a real knife, some of us bring a rubber knife. Abraham was so determined to obey what God said – although it was nonsensical – that God had to tell him and call him twice, “Abraham, Abraham, don’t do that!” Abraham was truly determined to do what God told him, regardless of the cost. If we want to have faith, that is what we have to follow. But many times we bring a rubber knife with us, because we’re not really willing to move all the way. Obedience takes a lifetime; it is not a one-time event: it is really one day at a time. We need to hear the voice of God in the midst of the many voices we hear today.
I have several things on my mind and heart, but I would particularly like to say this: Fr. Dana and Edye might think we are doing them a lot of favour because he has wanted to be in England – not because he wanted but because God wanted him to be here – but actually the opposite is true. We started the ministry in Europe 31 years ago and we have grown to become several churches; but Abp. Craig, having seen the Korean and Chinese communities in New York, said in one of our Convocations, “Ethnic churches don’t last for more than two generations; if you continue to become a purely Filipino church, in two generations your ministry will die.” That shook me. I said, “I don’t want to have devoted my life to something and after two generations it will die.” I am convinced that this was God’s voice, and the Word of the Lord to me and to our Diocese. We realise that it is no longer a purely Filipino culture; although it was started by Filipinos, this is not a purely Filipino church. We want to build churches among the Europeans as well; and we have a ministry to bring the Gospel to the least, the lost and the lonely, regardless of their nationality. The fact that we have several Priests who are not Filipinos is really a great blessing.
Fr. Dana might think we are doing him a favour, but it is the other way around. I know that he and his family have sacrificed greatly; but I want you to see that this ministry will continue after these two generations. What we are doing today could have an impact several generations from now. One day when I come there will be a mixture of several nationalities, and when we come into God’s Kingdom we go beyond and transcend nationalities and colours; because God puts in our heart – and I believe that our hearts are the same shape and the same colour – God puts that in the very heart of man.
So your presence here in one way is truly monumental. Several generations from now all those sacrifices will be mentioned; one was Fr. Dana Jackson, who accepted being a Priest among these Filipinos – “I can’t understand what they’re saying…” But you know that sacrifice is part of what God is doing; because for us to get saved and for us to have a restoration – “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind; the Lord raises up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:7-8) – Jesus came to sacrifice. For many of us, what God told Abraham was truly nonsensical: we can only understand through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because Isaac was a symbol of Jesus; Abraham was a symbol of God who offered His Son on the cross; and because of that, we become God’s children.
The healing of the relationship between God and man
Today as we come for the Eucharist, we understand that in some Christian traditions Isaiah 35:5-6 which says, “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5), these are the Messianic signs that God worked through Jesus Christ. Each of the healings that happen in the season of Epiphany, and the changing of water into wine, are all Messianic signs prophesied by Isaiah. I hope for the day when everyone who comes sick will leave healed; because every single one of us in coming to church in one way or another needs God in our lives. I came to church today not because I am a Bishop, but because I need more of Jesus; that’s the reason why I am here, because God is not finished yet with my life. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: one point that we find is that His healings are the revelation of God’s presence in the least of humanity; the second is that these miraculous signs that Jesus did in certain lives were signs of our redemption and the true healing of our fractured and broken world that we live in.
As we come before the Eucharist today, we are now so much changed by seeing the lame walk and the deaf hear… and it goes on and on and on… but ultimately it’s the healing of the relationship of God and man, that had to be healed, and that was healed on the cross. So when we come today, being summoned, or rather gathered, in the Eucharist, and we come to the Eucharist, we don’t come because it is a duty for us or a superstition; but there is something that happens in the Eucharist that is miraculous, that leads us to something that is beyond who we are and what we are. Often when we live in this world we get lost in our understanding, and when we come to church it brings us back to the reality and the meaning of existence. The problem is that when you have lost that relationship with God, eventually there is nothing there to remind you any more.
Many people question why Jesus died on the cross. Well, if that’s what God did, that means we really need it. And perhaps we don’t realise that it is setting a stage, if we think, for our children; and our children have to understand one day, and one day they will. It brings us back to the gathering together in the presence of God, because life is sacred. That’s the reason why from the time we are born until the day we die the Sacraments are always involved in our lives, because God doesn’t want us to forget that life is sacred. We see each other, but beyond that there is a sacredness, because God created us in His image and His likeness.
Entering the life of Christ
I encourage you to read Alexander Schmemann, who in his book “For the life of world” has a wonderful explanation of what the Eucharist is all about:
“The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Colour transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.”
That is the reason why, my brothers and sisters, the only way to understand yourself is to keep your life in Jesus Christ. The Patriarch said that many preachers today say, “We will teach you how to become a better you, and we will tell you how to become a better person”; but when people come to church we should tell them how to become a better Jesus, not a better you – because at the end of the day, God wants us to become what Christ is; that’s how we become a child of the Kingdom.
We come today not because it is a tradition or a duty, but because there is something that God wants to speak to us that is beyond our understanding, that is beyond who we are: that in a world where there is injustice, where there are killings, where there is terrorism, and where there are people dying and being bored, beyond all those things, God is a good God; God is a God of hope; God really wants us to taste that there is something greater that He can give us, and it was through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. If God was willing to give His best from heaven, there had better be something good coming – otherwise God is no God. But if He was willing to sacrifice His Son on the cross, there might be something that I don’t understand yet, but I know that one thing: God is good all the time.
In our evangelical background, sometimes we think that the church is ours. We don’t own the church. If you are a pastor or a Bishop and you think that you own the church, that’s when you have lost it. You don’t own this: we are part of a bigger work that God is doing. As Archbishop Adler said, we have an unwitting place in the plan of God. A Bishop is the shepherd’s heart of God; a Priest is the priestly ministry of Jesus; a Deacon is the servant’s heart of God; and the people are the love of God that brought us into His Kingdom. That’s the totality of what the Church is. Today we are celebrating not the work of man but truly a work of God. It’s wonderful to be a Christian. Some humanists say, “This is the only world we’ll live in: make the most out of it”; but that is not what my Jesus says. There is eternal life; this is only a foretaste, an appetizer…