St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension, May 24, 2020
“The end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.”
WHAT EVIDENCE would a clever prosecutor need to present about you or me to convict us of being Christians? In this free country, despite the current uproar against governmental reactions to COVID-19, we still have the freedom to pursue God in any faith we choose, or not at all. We’ve grown up in that freedom, so we might not always value it. Perhaps because of recent restrictions, we value it more today. There are countries in the world where they never may legally meet. Iran is one of those. This parish is beaming programs into that distant land to bless its people with the forbidden message of Jesus. Is that evidence enough that we are His?
There are atheist organizations whose hatred for our religion makes them want to remove us from public life, strip our tax exemptions, silence words of our Savior, and make us a joke. In lands where such anti-Christian programs have succeeded, the next step was to round up church people and imprison them, perhaps line them before a firing squad. In Sudan, North Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, you could die for expressing this faith. Iran hangs its Christian converts. It isn’t dangerous here now, but if someday following Jesus meant you took your life in your hands, would we qualify for arrest or even execution? If Christianity were a capital crime, is there enough evidence to hang us?
Some Christians have adopted practices to prove they are the real McCoy. A minister in the news some time ago recovered from a rattlesnake bite, one like his daddy died from. His church proves faith by handling the deadly creatures while holding the biblical promise of surviving their fangs. Is this the sign that we are Christians?
Another minister led his followers to graveside services for our fallen military personnel to protest the policy of accepting gay men into service. Is such protest the sign of real faith?
For certain denominations, speaking in unknown, spirit languages is required to mark out the truly saved, without which sign one could not even baptize another.
Some Anglicans have used the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, claiming its use as the badge of real Christianity. In older times, complete poverty, celibate lifestyles, shaved heads, repetitious prayers, visions and bleeding statues have marked the faith of some believers. In all this, what does Jesus say?
At His Last Supper, Jesus sat the eleven remaining apostles down and taught them the stage that would follow His death and resurrection. Promising the Comforter’s arrival—along with the coming persecutions—He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
Is that it? It is, if you want to listen to Jesus. The world might measure the size of your sanctuary, the attendance at your services, the number of souls you claim to have won to Christ by preaching or healing, or the money that comes in. By our love for each other, the world should understand that we’re real disciples. Christ’s legacy for us is love.
Now if that sounds too easy, hear what that standard means. “This is My commandment, love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.” John 15:12-13 Right now, the threat of being killed as a Christian doesn’t exist in Chico, California. It does, however, in Mashhad. It will someday become hostile for Christians here. The Bible absolutely promises a day when Christians everywhere will be hounded, arrested, accused and killed just for believing in Christ. Right on this street corner, it will be taking your life in your hands to come into this church.
I don’t think the judge would accept our mutual love as People’s Exhibit #1 in the trial that followed. It’s hard to put love on trial. Today, we are being tried in courts of culture, courts of media where they call us deluded, movies depict us as ridiculous, horror flicks where we light our candles and cross ourselves, faces gaunt and serious as we mystically pray to an invisible spirit.
We’re under fire, but the jury of our peers we must address today are next door neighbors, business associates, the teller at the bank, the visitor in our pews. What’s their take away, their impression of us? Are we sorry-faced and serious enough to impress them at worship, or is that the goal? Is our music good enough, our church beautiful enough, our preaching up to snuff, our Sunday school so entertaining it proves we’re the real goods? We’re on trial in a court of impressions. The stake is not our necks, but the souls of wanderers, starving for the true life that begins when they ask, “How can I be a Christian?”
We are followers of Jesus, showing God we are His own. Grace and salvation are freely given of God, then He requires our response. Jesus went on to say, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain... These things I command you, that you love one another.” John 15:16-17
We are branches on His vine, His life flows through us. When we stay connected to that vine we remain in the faith and in mutual love, a love willing to die for our fellow Christian, so He will bear fruit through us. What fruit is that?
Peter spoke on Pentecost how Christ was the prophesied Messiah, though His countrymen killed Him. He rose again. This truth spoken, with the evidence of unexplained international languages and shining faces in 120 joyful people, it resulted in 3,000 new believers who came to Christ that Sunday morning. That kind of fruit.
Some churches make an obligation of acting in a socially responsible way toward the poor, climate change, politics, and fracking. Christian truth and moral principles do cause us to be responsible, charitable citizens. Mother Theresa is a modern saint for her care of the world’s poor and dying. But she didn’t owe that. Her love was the overflow of her faith in Jesus.
St. Paul says for us to, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 St. Peter, enjoins us, “above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8 St. John later wrote, “this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” 1 John 3:11
Christian kids at church camp once learned a song around the campfire that makes this point. “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, And we pray that all unity may one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The song continues with walking hand in hand, spreading the news that God is in our land, and working side by side, guarding each one’s dignity. They will know we are Christians by our love. Do you love one another?
In such spiritually dreary days—and dreary days are more dangerous to our faith than dark ones—we are tested. Should it come to confess Christ and die for it, true Christians will know their persecutors can take nothing of real value away: we go straight into the arms of Jesus. What can you do to me—threaten me with heaven? No, it’s not fear of death that will shake our faith: faith that flees in fear wasn’t true faith at all. No. It’s days like these we need to find an answer for.
The biggest worry most people have is economical. We live in the richest country ever known, and we’re troubled if the TV cable bill goes up. If gas is $4 a gallon. My cholesterol went up. Our cellphone reception is more at stake than our prayer life. Doldrums are dangerous waters.
Re-focus. Jesus died for you. Not someone else, not people long ago: you. He is the Son of God, He is the God who made you. This is the message He left for you, and it’s the 9-1-1 for your life-or-death decision right this instant: will you follow instructions? Leave the techo-economic stuff alone. This is not a drill.
As soon as next Sunday, I hope, we will be physically back in church. Some pews will be empty by design, for your safety, and some will probably lack a family or person who is missing. That’s a problem. You are the solution to that problem. You will also see faces you have missed for 2 ½ months. When you see them again, ask yourself—how great is my love for him? Do I love her as Jesus loves me? Would I die in her place? These questions just got very important.
Pray this prayer with me: “Lord, I don’t know how to love as you love me. That kind of love isn’t natural to me. I need help if I am to love that way. Please help me, put it in my heart, fill me up with it, and let me show it in ways that count for all eternity. Give me the love for my fellow Christian that, when the world sees it, they will all know the folks at St. Augustine’s are disciples of Jesus Christ. Give me the love that unites the Body of Christ, and proves that faith in Jesus overcomes the world. Don’t let anything divide us. Give us love over all obstacles. When our love is right, bring people to fill these seats that we might grow in love all the more. If our faith in you was a capital crime, give us such a love that shows, evident enough to get the attention of authorities. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.”
If belief in Jesus were a criminal offence, is there evidence enough to get you arrested?
Love one another, as Jesus has loved you.
That’s the evidence.