Just yesterday the priests of the Diocese of Quincy gathered to hear the ACNA Canon for Church Planting speak on the importance of planting new churches. And today our epistle reading from I Corinthians contains yet another of Paul’s greetings to one of his church plants and, once again, it’s replete with commendations for the things they’re doing well. I used to read these words in the past with at least a nod or a smile in recognition of Paul’s legitimate pride in what his flock was dong to build the Kingdom of God, to reflect God’s grace given to them, to demonstrate their love, their living in hope, their growth in faith, their exercising of their spiritual gifts and their living in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. But I have to say, when by God’s grace you find yourself more nearly in Paul’s own shoes, as I do now, these words take on a far deeper meaning and, beyond that, a genuine reality.
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself saying with ever-greater frequency that we have a really great church here at Grace Anglican Fellowship – two great churches, in fact, as our Sunday evening congregation has many members who seldom are able to be in attendance here on Sunday mornings. And when I say how great this church is, what is it about which I’m speaking? It’s you, the people of this church, and the many ways in which you live out your faith, wrap your arms of love around others, reflect the grace of God, build His Kingdom in this our earthly preview of it, and share with each other the fellowship of Christ. It all sounds very “New Testament:” very like what Paul saw happening in his first-century churches.
It’s common in our day to hear various denominational leaders claim that their form of worship is the only one that’s completely true to the ancient worship of the early church. It’s almost enough to convince us that our 40,000 Christian denominations must all have sprung up within the first decades of the church’s existence. Fortunately we know better. And, in our completely honest moments, we have to admit that the earliest Christians must have worshipped in diverse manners, each tailored in some degree to their own physical circumstances and to the composite makeup of each local body of believers, whether predominantly Jewish or predominantly Gentile.
But all of this pales entirely when our focus turns to the things that matter most: to the spiritual bedrock that Paul is describing and commending when he writes about his church plants. Have you noticed that he never starts out by commending their large numbers, their fine buildings, their exquisite windows, the color of their carpets, or any of the many other external things on which we often focus and even fixate in the modern church? No, Paul invariably focuses on the things that are the true earmarks of an authentic body of believers, the things that are to be as much the earmarks of Grace Anglican Fellowship as they were of Paul’s churches at Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and Rome. In briefest terms they all boil down to three things: faith, hope and love. And we all know Paul’s conclusion that the greatest of these is love, which certainly accords with the distillation by Jesus of the law and prophets into only two commandments: loving God and loving our neighbor.
Both our epistle reading and our Gospel today focus more on hope. While hope ultimately may not be as great as love, it remains part of that great triad of faith, hope and love; and there’s no way to diminish its importance in the teaching of Jesus or in the writings of the NT authors. Hope, if it’s to be anything other than fantasy, requires an object, and both Paul and Jesus are putting forward the same thing for our focus. Paul commends his readers at Corinth because they were “awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1: 7b, 8). And Jesus is telling His disciples about that Day of the Lord when the Son of Man will be “coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).
There are other objects of the Christian’s hope, but this may be the one that drives and informs all the others: Jesus is coming, His coming is certain, His coming will be “with great power and glory,” and His coming will have eternal ramifications for all of us. We never share the Eucharist without prefatory reminders that the One Who comes to us at this table in the “perpetual memory of His precious death” is coming again. This is a truth that informs the faith and hope of all Christians. I just happened to find that same hope this week in the Creed of the Maasai tribe in East Africa, which ends with this statement: “All who have faith in Him must share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
And that, as we always need to be reminded, is what Advent is all about: the many comings of Jesus and, among them, two in particular. In our rush to get to Christmas, we tend to forget what Advent truly means. Yes, Advent definitely is John-the-Baptist-time, a time of penitential preparation for Christmas, a time to repent and make ready once more for Bethlehem, spiritually and figuratively speaking. We welcome again the Babe of Bethlehem into our hearts as our great Prophet, Priest and King, as our Savior and Lord, as the Son of God. We celebrate the fact that He is here, He’s ever near, He’s in our hearts, He’s at this table, He’s present to us in our daily lives, He comes to us by the Holy Spirit He has sent to us, as He promised to His disciples in the Upper Room. He is always Emmanuel: God with us.
For the present we see Him in those comings only with the eye of faith, with what Paul identified in last week’s reading from Ephesians when he wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling” (Ephesians 1:18). But we’re told in Revelation (1:7) that when He comes again, “He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him.” That’s the great hope of our calling, the one about which Jesus is giving His disciples final instruction on the Mount of Olives shortly before His betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. And in so doing, it’s significant to note that Jesus, far from laying out a specific timeline or presenting fixed, objective data, resorts to both of the genres we’ve been seeing in our readings for the past few weeks: parables and apocalyptic imagery.
Both are more shadowy and suggestive than explicit. Both genres have important and significant points to make. Both have single points to make. And in this portion of the Olivet Discourse, both the apocalyptic images and the parables are used to make the same point, Jesus’ final point, the one He makes three times for emphasis: “Be on the alert!” There may be forewarnings including cosmic signs and the appearing of leaves on the olive tree, but the doorkeeper must remain vigilant because, as Jesus famously says, “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Therefore says Jesus, “What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”
Gayle and I enjoy reading an internet blog by a devout and witty church musician named Jonathan Aigner. With regard to Advent, Jonathan wrote, “With all our buying and decorating and racing around, we’ve let our hearts go unprepared. We’ve refused to slow down, even for a minute. Like spoiled children, we’ve found waiting to be too hard, so we’ve rushed ahead with our music and parties and the obligatory ‘Merry Christmas!’ (In that sense) we are the ones refusing to keep Christ in Christmas, not the checker at the grocery store who says ‘Season’s Greetings.’ Church, take time to prepare! The time for celebration hasn’t yet arrived. Use the self–imposed time of waiting for Christ’s first appearance to learn how to keep awake for His next one.”
That’s precisely what the Maasai are doing when they say we “must share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him.” When we live like that, with that air of expectancy, then we’re being obedient to the command of Jesus, “Be on the alert.” And we, like the Christians at Corinth, will be commended for “awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Advent is a time of waiting; every day in Advent, Evening Prayer ends with these words: “May the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting.” But for the Christian, waiting is never a passive endeavor. “Eager” waiting calls for a time of preparation, a time for making our New Year’s resolutions, a time for the deepening of our personal spirituality, a time for the expansion of God’s Kingdom through our witness, and a time for growth in our commitment to God’s work. It’s a time to be getting ready for all that comes next. May this Advent season be a special time when each one of us prepares both for the coming of Christ at Christmas and for His coming again “with great power and glory.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen