St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, September 27, 2020
“that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love…”
GETTING TO HEAVEN is easy. Living on earth: that’s the trick. Let’s talk. The Protestant Reformation was launched by angry Catholic priests facing oppression by their own church. The Church of Rome held out salvation by a series of sacramental steps that everybody in Europe took from birth, then added steps that wealthy people paid to have done for them, threatening suffering in Purgatory so that one might go fight in the Crusades for that honor of sainthood. Layers and layers of requirements were added which only enhanced the wealth and power of the papacy. So, Luther and others demanded a simple answer to their question: How do I get myself saved?
Salvation, it would seem, is free, the gift of God to a person with faith. Faith is a gift too. Salvation is bought by the Blood of Jesus for us, and available to anyone who turns their heart toward Him. Salvation is being rescued from the hell-bound lost and sinful people of this world, to be given clemency by the King and Judge, Jesus Christ. It’s free, it’s available, it’s a gift. Going to heaven is easy.
But living on earth…well.
The year 2020 has been no picnic. There is more pain, death, trouble, unrest, angry words, disinformation, and leveled threats of more of the same than any year I can remember. It’s hard to get one’s footing, hard to know what’s real. During the early lockdown, it was hard to remember what day of the week it was. In the maelstrom, our walk of faith we may have forgotten, our Christian disciplines fading, and with them the hope of eternity more vague as well. Many of you have not been to Church since early Lent—by the governor’s mandate. How are you doing in your path toward God? What is the state of your sanctification?
Heaven is easy, free, available, a gift. But it’s hard, too, because our free gift of faith has to be maintained, must be acted on, so long as we remain here in the waiting room. It’s not over when you confess Christ and receive baptism. It’s begun.
Now, I need to make a distinction between what we mean by sanctification and what the medieval Roman Church was insisting upon. Theirs was a commercialization of the means of dispensing grace. I’ll illustrate. In order to work off sins and defer thousands of years of painful purging after you died, you should go on this pilgrimage. At our holy shrine, you pay for this, buy that, crawl on bleeding knees, hope for a vision or spiritual experience, pay and pray and hope and believe things that have no part in the commands of Christ. It’s a counterfeit spirituality, but every counterfeit mimics the real thing.
The real thing is not for sale. Once we’ve taken Jesus as Lord and Savior, and done the necessary steps of Baptism, Confirmation and Communion, it’s like a seed planted in good soil. The plant needs to grow. Growing is natural, but how it grows will depend on how we tend to it. There is a gravity that maintains a downward pull at our lives to resort to the same manner of living we see everyone else at. Our first entry into Christ’s Kingdom is not a magic trick. We are not instantly made perfect and thereafter moved only to do what is right. Our sins are forgiven from that point back, but our lives remain in our hands. How we live them makes a difference.
If salvation is the end game, why sweat it about sanctification? we might ask. Well, Jesus prayed to His Father about us. “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.... And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” John 17:17, 19 Getting into heaven is one thing, but our place in heaven and the level of the joys we will be capable of are, to large degree, determined down here, as we prepare, as we shape our character in the pattern of Christ.
Webster defines sanctification as, “the state of growing in divine grace as a result of Christian commitment after baptism or conversion; or the act or fact of freeing from sin or moral guilt.” Another definition I found helpful is that “sanctification is ‘the state of proper functioning.’ To sanctify someone or something is to set that person or thing apart for the use intended by its designer. A human being is sanctified when he or she lives according to God's design and purpose.” Bible Study Tools
Technically, the word means to make holy. But we probably have a static notion of the word holy, like a relic or a sacred place, or the Person of God, His Spirit. Someone who is holy does things, and would be like Jesus because of how he or she lives, what they say, how they feel about people and things, attitudes and way of life. Ultimately, that holiness that comes through the sanctifying process looks out on the world with new eyes, and more importantly, looks on God and beholds Him in the ways that St. Paul strives in our Epistle today to express to us.
“For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Eph 3:14-19
How does one get to the vantage point Paul is describing? To receive all the riches of God’s grace, to be so strong inwardly that you can bear to have Christ live consistently in your heart. Christ always in your heart means your thoughts and passions, needs and desires, hopes and dreams are all in tune with His, and through a continual exposure to God’s indwelling, the roots of that little seed of faith grow deep roots in the soil of the Holy Spirit, in the love of God, growing a plant of such capacity and god-like vision that you finally understand, appreciate, embrace and hold onto the multi-dimensional, many-facetted purposes of God, and how He sees the world, how He sees you. To be filled with Christ’s love, knowing Him inside yourself, seeing His outworkings in your footsteps, through your fingertips, filled to the fullest with God.
I love that passage. And I hope for it. But in what I figure is all too common, like Judge Bork said, ‘slouching towards Gomorrah,’ I lazily guess it’s too much to expect of myself. I’d pass out at such an altitude. If I start that path and fail, what’s the point? So, let me try to invent a doctrine that makes such effort useless and even wrong. Let me be proud of my mediocrity of faith and start excusing my daily sins.
You see how corrosive it is not to seek sanctification? Not only do you lose the potential of all that wonder St. Paul speaks of, but you begin slipping back. And in salvation, it’s not how you begin that matters so much, it’s how you finish. Moving forward is the only way not to move back. And back is not good, especially if you’re barely clinging to faith.
A more sober passage in the New Testament from Hebrews speaks to this failure to seek God further once the initial entry into His Kingdom is done:
“If we go on sinning after we have learned the truth, no sacrifice can take away our sins… What do you think a person who shows no respect for the Son of God deserves? … Falling into the hands of the living God is a terrifying thing. Remember the past, when you first learned the truth. You endured a lot of hardship and pain… You were cheerful even though your possessions were stolen, since you know that you have a better and more permanent possession. So don’t lose your confidence. It will bring you a great reward. You need endurance so that after you have done what God wants you to do, you can receive what he has promised. The person who has God’s approval will live by faith. But if he turns back, I will not be pleased with him. We don’t belong with those who turn back and are destroyed. Instead, we belong with those who have faith and are saved.” Heb 10:26-39 selected verses
I don’t quote this to make you afraid, but to see the effect of how we live our lives. Everything is cause and effect. What you eat effects your health, as does what you breathe, what you drink, what you read, what you watch. Soak yourself in the world’s slime and it gets stuck to you. This year the politics are excessively toxic and we get addicted to outrage.
But if we are locked away, kept home more than we might wish, could we use this time to our benefit, read more good stuff—those books on our shelf that looks impressive and we never got around to actually reading? Seek God in prayer in the morning? How much of the Bible have you actually read?
There is more to life than YouTube. If we are judged for our faith, are we feeding our faith, or our flesh? The sanctification we need is simply more life searching the mysteries of God’s Spirit and His fruits borne out of spiritual discipline.
Sanctification and discipline are hard words. We’re flabby Christians seeing God’s ways like we see a harsh diet and exercise regimen. We are exhausted just looking at it on the page. Jenny Craig? Are you kidding me? Obese? How can you call me obese?
What is good for you is goodness itself. Living right has great benefits and they are not long in coming, once you begin. Confession, absolution, taking baby steps of discipline all get us feeling closer to God, and that feels good. It feels great in fact. It’s what heals us and shames the devil. Then, if you momentarily fall, get right back up, seek His face, and start again. It’s not how far along this road you travel, it’s deciding to move, and then getting off the couch and doing it.
Getting to heaven is easy.
It’s living on earth that’s the trick.