St. James Blog

Reflections on life in the Kingdom of God. Events at St. James.

St. Stephen's Day

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand: where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

I often enjoy a quiet peacefulness in the days immediately following Christmas. Our Christmas Services are completed, my phone doesn’t ring, and email slows to a near complete stop. It’s a quiet time. Into this lull the Feast of Stephen bursts like unexpected fireworks. We know its coming and yet every year it freshly startles.

My very being wants to relax and gaze with wonder upon the infant Jesus. I wish to remain in that place of contemplation but our church calendar emphatically reminds us that Jesus was born with a mission and that He loves His martyrs. On Dec 26 we celebrate the first Christian Martyr.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’ They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow-servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. (Rev 6:9-11)

Christians are being martyred at an astonishing rate. Current estimates are that a new martyr is made every five minutes somewhere in the world. Some die famously while most die without fanfare. Except of course in heaven where they are numbered among the saints.

I do enjoy the peacefulness of this week and hope you do as well. Rest is good. So is prayer. Our Daily Office includes this prayer which feels particularly poignant on St. Stephens day.

A Prayer of Self-Dedication
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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In Thought, Word, and Deed

Morning Prayer begins with an opening sentence and plunges immediately into confession. Its comprehensive and leaves no wiggle room or does it? The first sentence reads “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Sins of deed are fairly easy to identify. We know what we did or didn’t do. Likewise we know what we have said. We are often also aware of our impure thoughts. Here’s the thing though. Not all impure thoughts are sinful.

Sometimes impure and even evil thoughts pop into our minds. This is not sin. This is temptation. Say for example you notice a particularly attractive man or woman. This is not sin. This is the equivalent of noticing a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset. You admire the beauty. No problem here. If you stare and make the person uncomfortable you lack couth, but are still not sinning against God. Now if you notice such a person and begin to pencil out an action plan to have sex with them that is sin.

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28 ESV)

Intent is the key here. St. Augustine famously described three stages of Sin: Suggestion, Pleasure, and Consent. A thought that comes into our minds is a Suggestion. It is not sin though it can tempt us towards sin. The thought can give us pleasure and our risk level rises as we enjoy the pleasure. This is when the temptation begins to take hold in our hearts and minds. Here we are in peril and the longer we entertain the pleasure the greater our risk becomes. When we welcome the pleasure, we have consented to it. We have surely sinned in thought.

Turning from thoughts before the pleasure grows is the key to resisting temptation and avoiding sin. Sins of thought that are allowed to grow become sins of word and deed. Jesus was unimpressed with people who avoided sins of deed but took no care for their interior life. 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matthew 23:25 ESV)

When Jesus declared all food clean he said

"But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." (Matthew 15:18-19 ESV)

When we give consent to impure thoughts we sin and our hearts are twisted out of shape. What then shall we do? We repent and confess “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” When impure thoughts arise unbidden turn from them as quickly as you are able. It is when we entertain pleasure and give consent that it becomes a habit and harder to resist. We can feel powerless. This feeling is part of the fruit of sin. We are not powerless. We have God on our side. Our Lord is quick to forgive and offers grace to strengthen us. Put forth the Cross as your shield against temptation. Consider again the words of Hippolytus

“When tempted, always reverently seal your forehead with the Sign of the Cross. For this sign of the Passion is a symbol openly combatting the devil if you make it in faith, not in order that you may be seen by others, but consciously putting it forth like a shield.” (Hippolytus c. 170–c. 236)

Where sin has taken root in your life this will be difficult at first. You will need to grow in character by persistently struggling to resist temptation. It is far easier to end a temptation before sin becomes a habit than to rid oneself of the sin. If you've read the Narnia Chronicles consider Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

May God have mercy upon us and forgive us all our sins.

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The Lord protects the faithful

Love the LORD, all you who worship him; *
the LORD protects the faithful,
 but repays to the full those who act haughtily.
Be strong and let your heart take courage, *

   all you who wait for the LORD.
   (Psalm 31:23-24)

 In today’s psalm we read that “the LORD protects the faithful”. The word protect is also sometimes translated “preserves”. Both are accurate and easily misunderstood. A life lived in Christ is not a guarantee that bad things won’t happen to us, but that in the midst of all things God is with those who love Him. If the psalmist intended us to understand that the Lord’s protection included things like disease, accidents, unemployment, grief the next verse would not be necessary. “Be strong and let your heart take courage…”

This is confusing and confounding as there are clearly times when the Lord does protect people from calamity, illness, and other evils of life. People are healed of cancer. Angels protect innocents from harm. Miracles happen but not for everyone in every circumstance. Sometimes the Lord protects us from the things we fear and other times does not. God is not capricious. There is a point to this. Miraculous healing and protection witness to Jesus. He is real and really present.

The unhappy and harsh circumstances are where we as disciples bear witness to those around us. Our confidence and hope shines in the darkness when we are “strong and… take courage”. This is our Martyrdom (The word martyr means witness). This is the witness of our lives.

This is also where we grow strong and become more Christlike. More able to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. These earthly tests refine us as gold is refined by fire. These unhappy places are the places where our faith is strengthened and demonstrated.

During Advent we prepare our selves for Jesus’ coming again in glory. We prepare ourselves by seeking to “Love the LORD” more fully in the full knowledge that doing so will not prevent bad things from happening to us. Cancer still happens. Terrorists still kill Christians. Unemployment happens. And in the midst of all this we are preserved. Now and into eternal life.

We are preserved now in our relationship with God. In the face of calamity we stand strong and our hearts take courage because the Lord is with us. The Holy Spirit sustains and comforts us. Grace surrounds us and we are not lost. We enjoy a closer walk with God and can experience joy in all things. We relate to the Martyrs of the early church who praised God in the midst of their trials. Our earthly pilgrimage may not be all that we hoped for but we are made for eternal life and the stuff that happens now is for our refining and for our witness.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
(Matthew 16:25 ESV)

 Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Persecution, Kingdom, Patience

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Rev 1:9 NRSV)

Our Daily Office NT readings are, in this second week of Advent, from Revelation. This morning I was struck by a phrase in verse 9. The Apostle John writing to the 7 churches in Asia (modern day Turkey) identifies himself as brother or partner with the churches in The Persecution, Kingdom, and Endurance. I bolded "The" because the Greek uses a single definite article. A word by word translation of the phrase is "The affliction and kingdom and patience in Jesus". In essence the three words create a single thought. They reflect the shared reality of the churches in Asia and John in captivity.

Affliction, Kingdom, Endurance. When I read this phrase I immediately thought of the reality we live in as Christians in the Bay Area. Of course we are not persecuted but the task of spreading the Good News is more difficult here than elsewhere in the country. I was recently in Austin for a weekend and the spiritual climate there is so different I felt refreshed and encouraged when I came home. It was like being on a spiritual retreat. Of course our "affliction" is rather light weight compared to that of our brothers and sisters in Christ who face active persecution.

Who can forget Iraqi Christian Refugees who celebrated their hope in Christ by carrying with them a Nativity Set as they fled persecution and erecting it in the midst of their camp. Life in the Kingdom in the midst of persecution. How poignant.

Living in the Kingdom is the best response to "affliction". We lean into our hope, increase in endurance, and grow more Christlike.

This is the truth of our life in Christ whether our affliction is unemployment, disease, trauma, or religious persecution. The loss of a job or underemployment, as an example, pushes us into a personal wilderness where we can lean into our faith and grow in endurance.

John makes two basic points in this verse. One that is the Affliction, Kingdom, and Endurance should be held together in a single thought. If we face affliction without kingdom or endurance the affairs of this world can overwhelm us. Facing affliction in whatever form it comes while rooted firmly in our kingdom hope will grow our faith.

The second point is that we like the Apostle John, we are together in this reality. He could have described himself as an Apostle here but chose to identify as a brother, a co laborer, a colleague if you will. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Affliction comes to all of us. We are together in this.

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