Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The stewardship of our faith

A sermon for Yr C, Proper 27, given at St Alban's on November 11, 2007.

With our capital campaign and annual stewardship pledging in recent weeks, we’ve had a number of Sunday messages on our time, talent, and treasure. Today, I’d like us to give some thought to the stewardship of one of our greatest treasures—the Catholic Faith.

St Paul wrote to the church in Thessolonica, “Brethren, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our written letter” (2 Thess 2:15). The traditions of which the apostle writes, designate the whole body of teaching, (both doctrine and practice) that Paul received and handed over to the Thessalonians. Indeed, tradition means “that which is handed over.” And the Apostle Paul faithfully did so, through both scriptural and verbal instruction.

What he “handed over” was the same as what he had “received.” Paul points to that procedure in describing the Lord’s Supper , “I received from the Lord what I also handed over to you . . .” (1 Cor 11:23). Likewise, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul again uses that formula before reciting an early creedal statement, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor 15:3).

We are to receive the tradition, stand firm and hold fast to the tradition, and ultimately hand over the tradition—whole, intact, undiluted, unchanged—so that the next generation can receive the same truth of the gospel that we have. Paul’s words to St Timothy are just as applicable to us: “Watch your life and doctrine closely: keep doing this, for by doing so, you save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim 4:16).

Those in the church who are entrusted with that responsibility above all are naturally the bishops—the successors to the apostles and "overseers" of local congregations. And so, in describing the duties of the bishop in his letter to Titus, Paul wrote, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).

In the liturgy for the consecration of a new bishop in the Prayer Book, the first item on the list of episcopal duties is that the bishop is called to “guard the faith” (p 517). When the time comes to recite the Nicene Creed, the chief consecrator of the new bishop says “We call upon you, chosen to be a guardian of the Church’s faith, to lead us in confessing that faith” (p 519). But of course, in all these things, the bishop sets the example for all of us to follow—to preserve and cherish the Faith.

The Christian faith, like the Church, is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”

It is holy
(or “set apart”) because it comes to us by divine revelation. It is holy because it is a gift from God, the fount of all holiness. It was not discovered or made up by human beings.

The faith is one and catholic (universal, or "according to the whole") because that is the nature of revealed truth. We do not get to pick and choose what doctrines we want to believe in like going through a line in a cafeteria and choosing what appeals to us. Our role is to receive God's revelation in its entirety, to affirm it as divine truth. To call the faith “catholic” is to say that the faith is not sectarian. That is, it is not the faith of Timothy Matkin or of St Alban’s, or of the diocese, or of Texas, or of America. It is the truth that God has revealed to all of us together.

The Anglican approach to revelation has always been mindful of this. As a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, stated so well: “We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church, enshrined within the Catholic Creeds—and those Creeds we hold without addition or diminution. We stand firm on that rock.”

It is apostolic because it comes from the apostles (those sacred witnesses to the truth) and because it reaches out to the whole world through our gospel witness. Ironically, I think one of the best definitions of the catholic and apostolic faith is the motto associated with the Dr Vernon McGee and the Southern Baptists: “The whole Word for the whole world.”

Today, I want to encourage you to: Know the faith, Keep the faith, Share the faith.

First, know the faith. After all, you cannot defend it or share it, if you do not first know the faith. Knowledge about God is not infused supernaturally. That means it requires a commitment on your part. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our own formation.

That means coming to church every Sunday. It means following the scripture lessons and paying attention to the prayers. It means renewing your mind through Sunday School or Bible study. Consider reading a book on some matter of Christian teaching. Learn how to use resources (there are so many online). Freshen up on the basics—from time to time, look through the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (pp 845-862) called "An Outline of the Faith." It is an excellent summary of the basics of Christian belief.

Can you give an accurate definition of the Trinity? Can you recognize misconceptions about the nature of the Godhead? Can you explain the relation of the human and divine in Jesus? Can you show the importance of the Mother of God and the saints? Can you tell someone how salvation works and why it’s needed? If you answered “No” to any of these questions, it is time to find the answers for yourself.

Being Catholics is not just about belonging to a Catholic Church like this one. It is also about knowing and living the Catholic faith that we have received from Jesus through the apostles. Ignatius, the bishop who succeeded the Apostle Peter at Antioch wrote: “Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the Apostles.”

Second, Keep the Faith. As the Apostle John wrote in his first letter, “Let that abide in you which you have heard from the beginning” (1 Jn 2:24). As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to St Timothy (6:20), “Guard what was committed to your trust.”

By God’s grace, we have been entrusted with something truly precious. St Clement of Alexandria, writing in the second century, noted: “Now he is faithful, who keeps inviolably what is entrusted to him. And we are entrusted with the utterances concerning God and the divine words—the commandments.”

Are we going to be good stewards of the truths that God has entrusted to us? St Paul once noted, “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim 4:3). He was probably referring to the last days. But the reality is that we encounter the same problem in every age—it’s just a part of human nature. We face the problems of deceptive teachers and of self-deception. We also face the problem of ignorance—just not knowing better.

Strange ideas creep in from all over the place, and we need to counter-act that. How many people think they are going to turn into angels when they die because they saw It’s a Wonderful Life on TV last Christmas and just don't know any better? Biblically, nothing could be further from the truth.

We also have the problem of cultural ideas causing confusion about our faith. For example, if the gospel comes into a new culture that has a background of ancestor worship, our doctrine about the veneration of saints may be distorted. People think, This is just like what we used to do. Yet, ancestor worship is idolatry—a great sin. We dare not confuse the two.

Sometimes I’ve encountered confusion with non-Catholic Christian traditions. Perhaps they come from a tradition where infants are not baptized, but their previous church had "baby dedications" instead. So when they see a baptism here, it is sometimes interpreted in light of what they were familiar with in the past--a "baby dedication." So they won’t fully come to understand what baptism is because it has become confused with something entirely different.

In English churches of the Carolinian period, it was common to find the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments on large plaques above the altar, with a painting from the life of Christ in the center. Just last week I saw a photo of a church convention where displayed behind the altar were the Millennium Development Goals (which are all nice and good).
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But we should not let them be confused with God’s commandments nor with the church’s mission, which as the Prayer Book states so well, is: “. . . to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” We need to embrace the faith fully—know it inside and out. And we need to know it so well that we instantly recognize a counterfeit.

Third, let us never forget our obligation to Share the Faith. As the saying goes, Christianity is always only one lifetime away from dying out. In Jude 3, the apostle wrote, “Contend earnestly for the Faith, which was once-for-all delivered to the saints.”

We need to share the faith with our children—no one will do it for us. Let them hear about it in church and in Sunday School. But more importantly, let them hear it from your own lips and let them see it in the way you live your daily lives.

Priesthood really comes out of fatherhood (it’s fatherhood on a community scale). Dads, don’t forget it is your responsibility to bless you children, to lead your family in prayer, to make sure that the truth is told, and to bring your family to the larger family gathering on Sunday. Moms, no one will ever have as strong an impact on your children as you do. Remember to nurture the faith, hope, and love that God has given them. Support them in prayer as Monnica did for her son, St Augustine. The family truly is “the domestic church” as it is commonly called.

The living out of our faith at home needs to be spread outside the home. We each need to be both willing and prepare to share it with others. Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptize them . . . and teach them to observe my commandments” (Mt 28:19-20).

Be friends to your neighbors, and be a neighbor to all those around you. Let the feel the love of God in your deeds. Let them see the light of Christ in your hearts. Let the hear the message of the gospel from your lips. Know the faith, keep the faith, and share the faith. As St Peter wrote, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15).

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