Thursday, August 13, 2009

May 24, 2009

These Sundays that follow the Holy Pascha, the lessons are chosen not so much because we need to ramp up the theme of resurrection – we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday – but these Sundays were especially set aside for what is called mystagogia, that is, instruction for the newly baptized into the mysteries which they have received at Pascha. And so, the first gospel that we read at the Paschal service at midnight – outside the doors of the women coming to the tomb. And then on Sunday afternoon we read about how Jesus appeared to His disciples and Thomas was not with them. And then the next Sunday we read about Thomas again and we hear the rest of the story, and then the week after that we read about the women at the tomb again. We're reminded of the remarkable discovery of the resurrection of our Lord which leads to faith. Then for three weeks we have services that speak to us of resurrection. We find the man who was crippled and lying by the pool in Bethesda, the man who was caused to be raised up again, who was resurrected, who was caused to stand up and walk, and we're told that _____ we are raised up from be prostrate, from being flat on the ground, from being dead men, and we're made alive. And then last week we heard about the woman at the well and how Jesus spoke to her about having not only baptism as an outward sign by which water covers our bodies, but having baptism within by the Holy Spirit through which we have streams of living water refresh and enliven us, pouring out from us, which is God's present in us. And today we hear about the man who was born with no eyes, the man for whom Jesus created eyes from clay and placed them in the sockets; the man who had not seen anything natural nor could he comprehend anything supernatural, but by God's grace, both the eyes of his body and the eyes of his heart were opened. And these are three things that happen to us in baptism: we are raised up through repentance, we are sanctified through water and sealed and given illumination of our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

But you see, all of this fails often to make a deep impression on us because we have found ourselves bereft of the awe and astonishment and of the joy that the early Christians and that still those who are evangelized by missionaries discover when meaning and purpose comes to be revealed to them by the words of the Gospel. We have grown up with the Gospel that we have heard read again and again, and we know the stories, and so their meaning has become for us not a very strong meaning, but simply they have become for us repetitious bible verses.

The man, however, in the lesson from the Acts today, is a paradigm for us of what it is to be a Christian. We hear a lot, brothers and sisters, about post traumatic stress syndrome now. I've been hearing about it for years. We've heard about it since the time of the Vietnam war. What it is simply is this: It's that a person becomes suddenly and startlingly aware that his life is on the line, that he is on the point of death, that all things being equal he is likely a couple minutes from that moment to no longer have breath in his body or her body. And having this experience then cause that person to release a whole bunch of endorphins – the biologists here will probably criticise me, I'm not talking correctly, but a whole bunch of hormones of some kind or the other – and these things are intended on one level to make it possible for the wild beast to be fought and cave men to run away, or to stay and fight. And we all have these – the flee or fight instinct. But in this case it's such a powerful thing it actually changes the body chemistry, and so the person is not exactly the same biochemically for the rest of their life. Their levels of anxiety or potential for anxiety have been raised, just as people who use certain drugs, like I'm told methamphetamines, change their brain architecture such that although they can stop using it, they're never going to free of some of the damage that was done by it.

But you see, if this were simply a medical indication of something that happened to you, that makes you no longer in control of your life, then God would not make any sense, for if God has not made us His robots, it certainly seems absurd that something somebody has done to you can make you into a robot. The point about post-traumatic stress syndrome is this: that it's not that it happens to us, it is what we do about it that makes the difference. There are people who experience this; who get up and they walk away from that near death experience, an encounter with a murderer or with a tragic accident or with a frightful circumstance, and they say, “Boy, I'm lucky I got out of that one. I wonder when the next one's going to come along.” And they spend their whole lives waiting for the next wild out-of-control car to come around the corner, or the next sniper to pop up from behind a garbage can and shoot at them, or the next armed robber to waylay them. And so their lives are spent in fear, and this post-traumatic stress then enslaves them. It makes them frightened people. It makes them people who despair, who lack hope.

But there are others who take these experiences and they bestow them in a different part of their soul. They say, “I was dead. I'm alive. There must be some reason for me to be here. From now on I'm going to live my life differently. From now on I'm going to consider it a gift.” You know, it always was a gift. It was a gift when you were conceived. It was a gift to your parents when you were born. The breath in your nostrils is a gift, but when it's given back to you again it is a special gift.

Now this is what happened today with the jailer in Philipi. This man had been called to court, and Paul and Silas were handed over to him. Paul and Silas had been preaching and Paul had healed a girl who had a – what we could consider to be... in fact, if she had it now she would probably have her own televangelist show. She was a person who could predict future events. She had a speical gift where she could synthesize what was around her and what she was told and she could figure out what was going to happen. She was a fortune teller and was able to make a lot of money for her owners because she was a slave. And Paul had healed her. He had delivered her from this fortune telling spirit, and so her owners were angry and they had Paul and Silas taken to the court and they were beaten. Now, for some reason, Paul did not choose to tell the court there in the market place, “I'm a Roman citizen.” If he had told them that at that point, they would not have beaten him. They would have given him a lecture and sent him on his way. But Paul allowed himself to be beaten, and then allowed himself to be locked up in the Philippian jail. And there in that jail at night Paul and Silas arose. They arose at midnight as the early church tradition says to do, the Didache: When you arise in the middle of the night, breathe into your hand and sign yourself on the forehead with the sign of the cross, reminding yourself of your baptism. And then they began to sing hymns.

Now, doubtless, as I have suggested before, the other prisoners in the jail weren't very happy. (To a parishoner) How would they feel down in your jail if a couple guys got up and started singing gospel songs in the middle of the night? (I'd enjoy it, but the prisoners might not like it). And all of a sudden the ground shook. All these guys were attached to chains that were screwed into the mortar between rocks in this stone building, and when the ground shook, the mortar came loose and all the chains fell out of the walls. Not only that, the prison doors shook open. And the jailer got up. Now this was a man who had a pretty good job. He was like the sheriff in Jackson County when I was a kid who got paid fifty cents a day to feed the prisoners and managed to feed them on twelve cents a day and got very rich. He took care of the prisoners. He was paid to watch them. When they left, if they had been kept well when they were released, then he got a stipend from the court and that was his living. But there was a downside to this. You know, they used to say in Texas if you were a prison guard and you let a prisoner escape then you had to serve the rest of his sentence. Well, there's probably no place other than Texas where they could get away with that, but that's what they tell me. Well, that wasn't the way it was there. The way ti was there was if you were a guard and you let a prisoner escape, you were executed. If your prisoner got away from you, you were taken and crucified. So, this man immediately seeing the door of the jail open assumed that the prisoners were all gone, that his life was gone. Now, he could have stayed and tried to defend himself to the authorities. He could have said, “You know, there was an earthquake,” and he might have gotten away with it. But there was another side to this law about prisoners escaping. If you let your prisoner escape and you went to trial and you were convicted of letting your prisoner escape, you were not only crucified, your family was sold into slavery and all your possessions were taken by the state. But if between the time the prisoners escaped and the time you were arrested, you comitted suicide, there was no trial and so kind of like that guy who was the fraudulent guy with Qwest who managad to die while his case was in appeal and so he's technically not guilty – if you died before the trial, your family got to keep their wealth and they didn't get sold. So this meant that this man was not only, in his view, condemned to death, to a speedy death, but he was condemned to death by his own hand. So he pulled out his sword and in proper Roman fashion, prepared to plunge it upward into his heart, when St. Paul cried out, “Do not harm yourself. We are all here.” You see, there was a man who was that far from death, from a violent death, from a painful death, from having to give up everything he loved and everything he prized without even a chance to say goodbye, and now he realized that everyone was still there. The prisoners were still sitting there quietly. They were so astonished at Paul and Silas praying and causing the earthquake, that when Paul and Silas said, “Sit down and be quiet,” they did it. Now the jailor understands what it is to experience post-traumatic stress and to turn it to good. That very moment he says to Paul, “Tell me by what power you did this. How can I be a part of this? What can I do to be saved?” because now that his life was spared, he understood that just being alive wasn't the most important thing – that there must be something beyond life that gave life real reason; something more than just protecting your assets, taking care of your family, and hiding out from danger. So this man that seeks and receives baptism that night, along with his children and his wife and the servants from his house, and he can honestly say, “I was dead and now I am alive again.”

Brothers and sisters, this is the experience the early Christians had. They lived in a world that made neither sense nor reasons. Now it was about two hundred and fifty years before the Christians really started to convert upper class people in any large number, because those people had the illusion that they could buy death off. They had enough money, they had enough possessions, they had enough prestige, that if they were far enough away from the emperor, they could just enjoy luxury and pretend like death was not stalking them. But most of the people in the middle classes, and especially the lower classes of society knew that death was around the corner for them every moment. For the poor, there was the fear of starvation, the fear of enemy invasion, the fear of disease. And for the middle classes, there was the ever present fear that the poor would riot, burn the city, and kill them. Everyone was contingent. Everyone was aware of the contingency. The closest we have come to that in the time near our time is Europe during World War II, when forces of evil stalked every land where people were like ants being crushed between the feet of red devils and black devils, Nazis and Bolsheviks. Where, no matter which way you looked there was no hope, only which enemy you wanted to have stalking you. But those who embraced Christ suddenly acquired hope. Not just the hope that gave meaning to their life in this world, gave it order and rules and purpose, but it gave them really now, having faced death and been delivered from it to face death again in the arena at the hands of gladiators or wild beasts, or the swordsmen, or any other clever devices that the Roman emperors contrived to try and squeeze the faith out of people. And those seeing them face death with great joy and embracing death because they had life beyond it, came to be baptised in great numbers, so that it was said that the blood of the martyrs became the seed from which the church grew. Hopeless and desperate people seeing other formerly hopeless and desperate people not afraid to die lost their fear of death, embraced Christ, ran into baptism, and received life.

Now I pray for all of you, that you not have, some great and terrible frightening experience. Post-traumatic stress is not something good to have. Fear is bad because it's scary, it's not something fun – although sometimes when I used to see my kids on rides at the amusement park I'd think that they really thought fear was fun. I hope that all of you have a smooth path upward toward God without any bombs going off at the side of the road, without any outbreaks of disease, or anxiety, or fear of desertion or harm. But I pray this for you: that if those things lie along the path of your life, you will have sufficient faith in Jesus Christ that you will be able to transcend them, and like that man looking out the window of his house and seeing the jail door open, and hearing the voice of Apostle Paul saying, “We are all here,” you will give thanks to God trusting that He is able to bring you out of all of these problems, and all of these sorrows, and all of these pains, and all of this suffering, and all of this sickness, and that you will not be afraid, knowing that your Lord has conquered death and overcome meaninglessness, and opened life and hope and purpose to all. So that with St. Paul, you can say, “To die is Christ and to live is gain, for whether I live, or whether I die, it is in Christ.”

To our Risen Lord and Christ be glory now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen. Christ is Risen!
Indeed, He is Risen!

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