"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

“Jesus said, ‘They need not go away. You give them something to eat.’” From the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year around Easter or Christmas you are bound to see it on the convenience store news rack—a cover article in Time or Newsweek about the REAL Jesus. These magazines promise to debunk the “Sunday school version” of Christ by revealing the “Jesus of history” as reconstructed by modern scholars. These issues are usually among the year’s best-selling. Clearly many Americans suspect that what they’ve been told about Jesus from the pulpit isn’t the full story. After all, didn’t the Church cover up the Gnostic gospels for centuries? Doesn’t the Vatican have a “Secret Archive”? Let’s face it: The DaVinci Code struck a chord with a lot of Americans. It is not surprising that millions of readers want to learn what “unbiased” experts have to say about Jesus of Nazareth.

Unfortunately, much of what Hollywood and the news media tell the American people about the “Jesus of history” is a far cry from objective fact. In truth, many of the scholars who do “historical Jesus” research are deeply hostile to traditional Christianity. Some of today’s most popular books on the subject were intentionally written to undermine and reconstruct the religious beliefs of their readers. Their authors hope to replace the Christ proclaimed by the Church with an alternative Jesus that better reflects their own “enlightened,” “humane,” or “progressive” values. The result is a new and improved American Jesus, custom designed to guide our quest for personal fulfillment: Oprah, Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra all rolled into one.

Of course, this newly-fabricated Jesus still bears some resemblance to the Christ of the New Testament. Like the Biblical Jesus, the Jesus of Time and Newsweek calls us to social justice, reassures us when we are anxious and urges us to reach out to the despised and the lowly. But this “revised” Jesus no longer strains our intellects with claims of divinity or challenges our preconceptions by working real miracles. We no longer have to believe Jesus fed multitudes with the contents of a child’s lunchbox, that he calmed a stormy sea, or raised the dead, or walked out of his tomb on Easter morning.

The hypothetical Jesus created by modern scholars is chiefly a moral teacher and social activist. He might inspire us to become better people, but he will never claim to be our “savior.” I suspect this is his most attractive quality for many people. After all, we Americans are an independent bunch. We want to meet Jesus on our own terms. We like being spiritually and morally challenged, but not too much. We appreciate some help along the path to salvation—whatever “salvation” might be—but in the end we want to do the “saving” ourselves. It is no coincidence that this new Jesus--an all-inclusive, non-judgmental, wandering Jewish wise man—perfectly meets the demands of today’s “spirituality” marketplace. I am reminded of what Aaron said when Moses caught the Israelites with the golden calf: “The people gave their gold to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Make no mistake about it: this “new model Jesus” is an idol of our own devising. Although he bears a superficial resemblance to the Lord of all creation, this manufactured Jesus is as hollow and perishable as Aaron’s golden calf. Every generation or two intellectuals who want to remake Christianity have to retool and come out with a new version of their hero. The Christ of the Bible is “the same, yesterday, today and forever,” but it seems American culture prefers a Jesus who comes with periodic “upgrades.” We are eager to download “Jesus 2.0.”

I will admit that I sometimes despair at the misinformation about our Lord and our Faith that circulates today. We all know people whose souls are starving for lack of knowledge of our Lord. But how can we share the good news about Jesus—the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of the Church, the Jesus who saves from sin and death—when so many people think they have already learned the truth about Him from a bestselling novel or a PBS documentary? It is difficult not become discouraged. But take a look at today’s Old Testament lesson. Listen to what Ezra prays: “Thou art a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and didst not forsake them. Even when they had made for themselves a molten calf … and had committed great blasphemies, thou in thy great mercies did not forsake them in the wilderness.” It is certainly true that many sincere people have been tricked into following a false Jesus. Millions today bow down today before a man-made image. Yet the God who rained down manna even upon the disobedient children of Israel will not forsake the lost of our own time. He will provide for them food enough.

The crowds that gathered around our Lord as he taught in the villages and countryside of Palestine didn’t have the faintest idea who He really was. No doubt they each projected their hopes and dreams onto him as surely as our contemporaries do today. Even his closest disciples didn’t truly understand Him until they had experienced His Passion and His Resurrection. Yet Christ never turned away those who sought Him. In compassion Jesus even looked after their physical needs, as he does in our Gospel lesson today. But the miraculous feeding of the 5000 was a mere shadow of what was to come. Shortly after this miracle, Jesus told the crowd that the true food and true drink he offers are His precious Flesh and Blood. He promised that those who partake of this holy food will abide in Him for eternal life. The real Jesus wants to give Himself to us, forging a bond so complete that “nothing, neither death nor life … neither things present nor things to come … nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God we have in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In a few moments God incarnate will share His divine life with us at this altar. You and I will taste the only true food and drink one can experience in this life. Yet there are millions of our fellow Americans who are spiritually starving and do not know it. They think they know Jesus because they have read some second-rate scholarship or watched a cable news special. In fact what they have received is a Styrofoam Jesus. He is not the only-begotten Son of the Father. He is not the one who died on the cross for us and rose again, trampling down death by his own death. Spiritual life cannot be nourished by a bloodless, simulated Jesus. The real Jesus yearns to feed these lost sheep. But how is he going to do that when the sheep don’t realize they need to be feed?

Christ tells us the same thing He told those disciples long ago: “You give them something to eat.” You and I—the people of St. Vincent’s Cathedral Church—are called to take “the living bread that came down from heaven” to those who need it. That is a serious responsibility. I don’t know about you, but I find this a very daunting assignment. Just look at all the lies and distortions and ignorance that pass for “enlightened opinion” these days. I’m just one man in suburban Texas. How much difference can one person really make?

Our Lord Jesus simply points to the five loaves and the two fish. Through Christ’s power his first disciples used a trivial amount of earthly food to satisfy the hunger of thousands. The Lord imparts that same divine power to his Church today, so we can offer millions the food that leads to eternal life. Fortunately, you and I can start small and we won’t have to go very far. I am certain that everyone here knows somebody whose soul is starving to know what we can tell them about our Lord and Savior. These people may not yet realize what they are hungering for, but that is what they need. Their hearts will never be truly satisfied until the Styrofoam Jesus our culture offers them is replaced by the real, flesh and blood Redeemer. Of course, sharing the Good News is not always easy, and some people aren’t going to like what we have got to say. But if you have ever seen a soul come to life again after being nourished by the knowledge and love of God, then you know this is worth doing. That is what happens when mortals eat the bread of angels, and it is a thing of beauty. I do not know if there will be twelve basketsful left over when every man, woman and child on earth has feasted on Christ, but let’s do whatever we can to find out. May God give us the grace to carry the real Jesus out into the world until all have tasted of his goodness and are satisfied. Amen.


Blogger Adam said...

Wonderful! Thanks for posting it. May post a link to it at my blog?

12:20 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

That should say "may I post a link to it at my blog?" Thanks, Deacon.

12:21 PM  
Blogger texanglican said...

Thanks for the good word, sir. And of course you can link to it if you like, Adam. I should add, however, that I am still a humble "licensed lay preacher" in the diocese of Fort Worth and an aspirant to Holy Orders.
I very much enjoy your blog, btw sir.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Thanks. I will put up a link. It really is a good sermon. Your status as a layman notwithstanding, it is solid catholic teaching, which is a rare thing in ECUSA indeed. Thanks again.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Randall, Jay here. By and large you hit the nail on the head with the hostility of some scholars to the church's Jesus. 1) It's a little unfair, though, to just talk about biblical scholars as though they are a monolith. Sanders and Crossan are oceans apart in terms of method, responsibility, and learning. And L.T. Johnson is an ocean away from each of them. I don't think it's fair to make the kind of charges you do without specifics. 2) And I also think your selection of the abuse of Jesus by scholars alone is highly selective. Have you listened to Joel Osteen lately? Have you read any of "Your Best Life Now"? There's a lot more for catholic/orthodox/traditional Christianity to fear from this Dr. Phil of the religious right (actually Dr. Phil's got a bit more backbone) than from the Society of Biblical Literature. Crossan doesn't pack 16,000 people a Sunday to hear him say Jesus was eaten by wild dogs, but Joel Osteen can, but by telling his flock God likes them exactly as they are (with a few minor tweaks here and there, perhaps, but surely nothing that might upset too much). Pillorying scholars is easy enough, like shooting fish in a barrel. But is that really where your problem lies? I doubt you'll lose many parishioners to Dominic Crossan's books, but you probably will lose some, if indeed you haven't already, to Osteen's "gospel" of positive thinking and wealth. And Osteen has hundreds if not thousands of clones, which is more than we can say for Dominic. 3) You also might check out Newsweek's Easter cover of 2005. It engages the criticisms of your sermon, provides no new and exciting disclosures about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and whatnot, and gives decent treatment to traditional/orthodox/catholic beliefs. I know this because I told my Christology class to get ready for this year's Jesus Expose and then, when I received my Newsweek, I had nothing to show them. It was a little embarrassing 4)I don't recall hearing much about social justice from biblical scholars. I've mainly heard that from priests and preachers, both sincere and not. Richard Horsley's a scholarly exception, I suppose, with his Jesus = Ho Chi Minh cant. But obligation to the poor and the outcast is Christian duty, according to the Bible at least, and it's the Church's job to proclaim this obligation. And it is derelict in its duty when it does not. That's hardly the only responsibility of the church, but I don't understand why you oppose social justice to other aspects of the church's teaching. I don't think Christianity allows for the distinction.
I really like reading your sermons, Randall, even when I don't agree with parts of them (although I can't remember disagreeing with you on a sermon before). Please keep sending them!

10:03 AM  
Blogger texanglican said...

Thanks for the comments, Jay. Much appreciated. In the first draft of the sermon I actually praised two "historical Jesus" scholars (Bishop N.T. Wright and John Meier) but that draft sounded more like an academic lecture rather than a proclamation of the word, so I dropped it. As for your critique of Olsteen, I agree that he is egregious. (There's a cover story in Texas Monthly this month on him, btw). I certainly agree that his sort of "feel good" preacher is a threat to the message of the Church universal. (Though I don't believe his sort of talk gets much play with the St Vincent's community, while Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar's "Five Gospels" were both mentioned to me in the last month--hence the inspiration for this sermon). As for social justice, please note that I did expressly point out that "LIKE THE BIBLICAL JESUS, the Jesus of Time and Newsweek calls us to social justice, reassures us when we are anxious and urges us to reach out to the despised and the lowly." (emphasis added this time) No question, care for the poor and oppressed is central to the Church's life. Thanks again for the comments, sir. And do please keep stopping by!

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jay here again. Duly noted and corrected (with my apologies) on the social justice point. On Osteen, perhaps Borg is a bigger threat to St. Vincent than Osteen. Generally speaking, however, Osteen and his ilk have had significant success with people on the outs with catholic/orthodox/traditional Christianity. And his reach is ever so much wider. I imagine Crossan has more appeal at my parish (as you might well guess) than Osteen, but Willow Creek Church here in Chicago, with its market-tested absence of yucky iconography like, say, crosses, and its mini-mall and Starbucks is simply laden with ex-Catholics. And that saddens and worries me. I don't know if I'm a very good Catholic, or if I'm even in a position to judge myself on that, but I know the church is my home, my family, my tribe, etc. I agree with Benedict XVI that it's a demanding life. And I hate to see people, as our housemate Matt Rosen observed of Willow Creek, coming to church for a meal and being served cotton candy.

In rethinking our exchange, I recalled L.T. Johnson's "The Future of Catholic Biblical Interpretation." In that book he reproduces alot of the debunking work he did so well in much of "The Real Jesus," but he also thinks that some of the troubles with Catholic exegetes today are apathy and ignorance of the exegetical traditions of the church. And I hope that part of the solution will be capable patristics scholars such as yourself.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Francesco said...

Dear Randall,

I very much appreciate this homily and will send it to my cousin and his wife in California. I see that you are addressing a specific audience, so you attack specific theologians appropriate in that context--as you assure Jay.

I agree with Jay about how saddening it is to see people leave the Church for these cotten-candy churches like Willow Creek. This is a problem that extends beyond the Church and into a society that lacks depth and does not wish to be challenged, as Randall addresses.

My antedote to this has been to be the best Catholic I can be and to seek to make my parish true to its Catholic roots and liturgy. Whether or not I attract thousands, I am consoled if I reach people who are yearning for Christ in the Sacraments of His Holy Church.

After the feeding of the five-thousand, when Jesus revealed that He is the Bread of Life, flocks left him there. It is unfortunate that many people are superficial. However, that is not only an American phenomenon; it is a human phenomenon.

Pope Benedict XVI in his interview as Cardinal with Peter Seewald, "The Salt of the Earth," makes the point that salvation is not quantitative. While quantifiable progress (as the Enlightenment seeks) is possible in technology, it is not possible in man's goodness because every man is new and because in a certain respect history begins anew with every man. We are a Faith that addresses each person, especially today when Christendom is no longer the reality it once was. This person-to-person conversion is what we must seek, as Randall stresses. If each one of us gets to work to be truly missionary in spirit (for if we have the love of Christ within we cannot help but be missionary), then we shall indeed be able to change the world, even if it is not as we would like. We are in God's hands. As Card. Ratzinger writes, "Even when man casts off what bins him to God and hastens toward destruction, He will create a new beginning in the midst of the foundering world." Let us be His conduits, in a truly priestly spirit, in a world that yearns for Him! Keep up the good job, Jay and Randall!

7:06 AM  

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