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AMAZING GRACE: OUR HERITAGE
A Homily Delivered at the Opening Communion Service
Today we are blessed of God to gather as His people at a point in the life of this portion of Christ's church that is joyous, historic, and defining. It is a joyous moment, because we join in celebrating one hundred twenty-five years of God's goodness and grace in the life, witness, work and service of the Reformed Episcopal Church. It is an historic moment because we gather in assembly, for the first time in memory, as an international body of Reformed Episcopalians, coming together from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Liberia, Canada, and the United States, to join in a time of worship, fellowship, deliberation and celebration that may encourage, stimulate, and inspire us all in our common commitment of faith and endeavor.
It is, therefore, an appropriate time to begin by giving thought to our heritage. You cannot be godly without being thankful. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the church at Rome, characterized the pagan world of unbelief as a people who "...did not glorify God, neither were thankful." (Romans 1:21) To do the one requires the other: to glorify God demands that we offer him grateful hearts for His amazing grace. "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage." (Psalms 16:6)
The idea of "heritage" and "inheritance" is prominent in Holy Scripture-in fact, it is central to the most vital realities of our relationship with God and of our faith. The covenant promise of God, articulated in Eden, and reiterated to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, and fulfilled in Christ Himself-that covenant promise is the promise of an inheritance. If you ask who the people of God are, they are repeatedly referred to in Scripture as the "heirs of the promise." (Galatians 3:29)
When Bishop George David Cummins stepped forward to organize the Reformed Episcopal Church on December 2, 1873, he did so by claiming an heritage. And his memorable words define what must be the focus of our own claim and celebration today. Here is what Cummins said in his sermon to the First General Council of the church:
"We have not met to destroy, but to restore... One in heart, in spirit, and in faith with our fathers... we return to their position...and through these, our ancestors, we claim an unbroken historical connection through the Church of England with the Church of Christ, from the earliest Christian era."
The heritage which Cummins claimed for the Reformed Episcopal Church was not merely the legacy of his immediate forebearers; much less was it to be an inheritance of his own creation, a legacy to be built by those who stood with him in the organization of this branch of the church. The heritage which Cummins claimed was not merely that of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries-nor of the sixteenth century-but of the first century. Yes, it was the heritage of the Church of England, and that, as we well know, is an heritage traceable in its origins to the immediate post-apostolic age. But even more broadly than that, the heritage claimed by Bishop Cummins for the branch of the church which he called to organize was the heritage of "the Church of Christ from the earliest Christian era." To put it as I think it must be put, it is the heritage of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
One wonders whether or not there was, resonating in Cummins' mind, the
definition of Anglican Christianity articulated by Bishop Lancelot Andrews
more than two hundred years earlier.
"One canon, reduced to writing by God Himself, [in] two testaments." Bishop Andrews started there. Bishop Cummins began in the same place, with the Reformed Episcopal Church, holding "...the faith once delivered unto the saints," and declaring "its belief in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God..." Today the world in general, and Christendom in particular, are beleaguered by a crisis of authority. In the midst of that very crisis, we gather together to thank God for the heritage claimed for us by Bishop Cummins; the heritage bequeathed to us by classical Anglicanism throughout the centuries; the heritage of historic Christianity since the earliest era-the unshakable conviction that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the revealed Word of God; and the unswerving commitment to those Scriptures as the ultimate authority for both the faith and the practice of the church. And this is the commitment which God, by His amazing grace, has enabled us to maintain throughout one hundred twenty-five years as a church: that the authority of Holy Scripture is unique, absolute, determinative, ultimate, and final. In the words of the Articles of Religion: "Whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of the faith..."
Those Articles of Religion, bequeathed to us by the English Reformers, and affirmed by Bishop Cummins as embodying the substance of the doctrines of grace-those Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are also an integral component of our heritage as a church-because they distill, summarize, and put forward the biblical faith.
Throughout the Thirty-nine Articles, points of doctrine are established on the basis of references to Holy Scripture, and are many times set forward almost exclusively in the precise words of the Bible itself. From the point of view of human frailty and weakness, there is every reason why this church, like so many others, should have abandoned this commitment, relegating these precepts to the realm of antiquated curiosities. The fact that what we claim as our heritage we still own as our life is attributable to nothing other than God's amazing grace. And we join in chorus with the words of the Psalmist: "The boundary lines are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage."
Christian faith is lived out as the Gospel is ministered in Word and sacrament, and as the people of God are formed and shaped by that ministry to become more and more a habitation of God by His Spirit. The formative instrument of that ongoing spiritual process, as far as our communion is concerned, is the Book of common Prayer. More than merely the means for our corporate worship, the Book of Common Prayer is, for churches in our Anglican tradition, the agency through which God nurtures both individual and corporate spirituality. That liturgy is a legacy bequeathed to us through centuries of Christian piety and devotion, compiled and published under the direction and care of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and those who assisted him in the sixteenth century, and brought to full fruition as the work of liturgical reform and refinement reached its culmination in the Prayer Book of 1662. Cranmer's genius as a reforming bishop and liturgical scholar was to provide for his church a liturgy which is biblically faithful; which maintains continuity with the practice of historic Christianity, which unifies the church; and which edifies the people. As a result, we are heirs to a rich liturgical heritage which we must be diligent and zealous to maintain with full integrity. After all, worship is both an articulation of what the church believes, and a teaching experience through which faith and spirituality are constantly shaped, nurtured, and brought to increasing maturity. There is a profound mutuality between what the church believes and what she prays. Liturgy simultaneously expresses faith and nurtures faith. The law of prayer is the law of belief. Lex orandi lex credendi. Together with the Holy Scriptures themselves, that Prayer Book liturgy has provided the internal gyroscope which has kept our ecclesiastical ship upright and on course; it has nourished our life; it has molded our faith. It is a bestowment of God's amazing grace-a vital component of our glorious heritage. It is one of the principal reasons that we say with the Psalmist, "The lines are fallen to me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage."
Let the joy of the Lord be among us as we celebrate the greatness of our heritage at this Council-and let our joy be full! But let our celebration of God's amazing grace to us as His people also move us, as indeed it must, to humility and to rededication. Let our remembrance of heritage be offered in the spirit of the General Thanksgiving with which we conclude every reading of the Daily Office:
"And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; And that we may show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; By giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days." Amen.
[The full text of Bishop Riches sermon may be found on the R.E. website, www.recus.org]
Advent begins, Sunday November 28, 1999. During Advent there will be a basket in the Narthex for donations of non-perishable food items which will go to the Tinley Park Food Pantry. We appreciate your support of this annual effort to help those in need.
Feast of St. Andrew
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