Ye cannot serve God and Mammon (St. Matthew vi: 24)
Our Gospel lesson appointed for today comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount. And like all the lections of Trinity Tide, it helps us to understand our sanctification and habituation to virtue. Today’s lesson is hard to study because it involves our relationship with two necessities of life, food and clothing. And our anxiety over these essentials are not made any easier by Our Lord’s abrupt dismissal of our worry about procuring them. He appears far more concerned with the spiritual food and raiment that will nourish and clothe our souls. He warns us: You cannot serve God and mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) Simply put: You cannot serve God if you are also serving mammon. And He condemns the idolatry of mammon because He insists that God will provide us with all our earthly needs.
Perhaps we can better understand all of this if we recall the main reason for Jesus Christ’s Incarnation. He has come down from Heaven to establish what we need truly for our eternal salvation. Thus, He has come down from Heaven to overcome our slavery to sin and a world full of false gods. Fallen man is a spiritual schizophrenic. The frailty of man without [God] cannot but fall, we read in today’s Collect. Indeed, the problem is that we are frail and fallen and thus we are torn between God and Mammon. Christ comes first and foremost to feed and clothe us with God’s holiness and righteousness so that we might be saved. What He longs to procure for us is the means that ensure our redemption and return to God the Father. As Romano Guardini puts it, From the abundance otherwise reserved for Heaven, Jesus brings Divine reality to earth. He is the stream of living water from the eternal source of the Father’s love to a thirsting world. From ‘above’ he establishes the new existence that is impossible to establish from below, existence which, seen only from the natural and earthly level, must seem subversive and incoherent. (The Lord, p. 82) Christ comes down from Heaven to share the Eternal Treasure of God’s love with us. This is what we call Grace. That loving power is God’s response to a thirsting world. Like as the hart desireth the waters brooks, so longeth my soul after thee O God. My souls is athirst for God, yea even for the living God. (Psalm xlii. 1,2) To be nourished and transformed by God’s Grace and Divine Virtue, man must seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1) For Christ, what we need is the Divine food and medicine. God has made us for Himself. We must hunger and thirst for His food and drink. From the Father alone flows that living water that not only sustains mere existence but promises to make life better spiritually through the soul’s discovery of its true nature and destiny. From the Father alone can we yearn for that spiritual fruit which subverts man’s otherwise earthly obsessions.
Now, of course, it is not as if man hasn’t longed for this salvation or some form of it throughout human history. The ancient pagan philosopher Aristotle taught his students that all men by nature desire to know (980 a21), and that man naturally seeks happiness. (1097b) We men are not mere animals. We also possess the desire to seek for happiness and knowledge. Man used to be rational and he used to use his senses to begin the journey after truth. Man used to study nature and the self to discover the truth and to find happiness. And, still, he was restless. Man seeks out a higher truth that yields permanent happiness. Man cannot be content with food and clothing. If true to himself, man insists on finding first principles and even God. Aristotle quotes Hesiod when he writes:
Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another's wisdom, is a useless wight. (1095 b10)
A useless wight is a fool who settles for very little. Today’s world is full of them. Some of them are Christians who have forgotten that they have brains. Another’s Wisdom is needed to satisfy man’s inward hunger and thirst for knowledge and happiness. Christians believe that God’s Wisdom must be made flesh in Jesus Christ as the only spiritual means capable of saving man from becoming a useless wight. God’s way in Jesus Christ is entirely practical. In Jesus Christ, we are called to see this world as no end in itself, but a created good that must be used only in so far as it advances our salvation. The things of this world are gifts that are the basics that enable us to move inward and upward in spiritual passion and longing back to the author and giver of all good things.
Jesus urges us on to seeking the Supreme Good of God by reminding us, in an Aristotelian way, that God is the Mover and Definer of all things. He is our generous Father who forever loves and cares for us. Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Stop, he urges, if you are indeed consumed with this world. Look at nature, look at the flowers, the animals, and the fowl of the air. All of nature is held in my Father’s loving hand. Nature is providentially ordered by Him. He feeds it, sustains, colors, beatifies, informs, and defines it. Each unique nature is defined by my Father’s Wisdom and enlivened by His ceaseless loving care. None of these creatures is anxious about anything. The birds neither sow nor reap and my Father feeds them. The lilies neither toil nor spin, and Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed by my Father like one of these. (St. Matthew vi. 26-29) Jesus brings before us the created things of this world and shows that they hang entirely upon the Father’s Wisdom and Loving Care for their being and beauty. He shows us that God orders all of nature providentially. He reminds us that the birds of the air are anxious over nothing and are fed. Similarly, the lilies of the field emit utter beauty without the slightest effort or toil. God provides for them, and would do the same for us, if only we would have faith and trust in Him. See and believe, Christ urges us today. Faith in God begins with openness to what surrounds us. We are bidden to slow down, stop, and behold how God enlivens and quickens, orders and defines, and gives divine beauty to all of His creatures and the universe itself. See and believe that God is at work in His world. Christ tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all other things shall be added to you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Faith in Christ means following Him, through nature and then beyond it, up and into the transcendent loving truth that enlivens and informs all things.
Why do we find this so difficult? We are too comfortable with mammon. Our souls have grown cold and been dulled by the worship of creaturely comforts and earthly joys? We have been rendered slothful because we have forgotten whence we come and whither we go? Are we possessed by Mammon? Mammon is a false God, and the service of Mammon is idolatry. And it is the essence of idolatry to trust the things of the world as though they were a final and ultimate significance. Idolatry is the worship of worldly things, and it is a subtle, but constant, ever-present danger to the spiritual lives of all of us. (Parochial Sermons: RC) If we wish to stop putting Mammon first in importance, and to quelch the anxiety that worries about earthly sustenance and riches, we must tend first to the good of our souls. We must see and understand that created things, Mammon, really can never make us happy in any lasting and significant way.
Today, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve God and Mammon. Is not life more than meat, and the body made for more than raiment? (St. Matthew vi. 25) Jesus knows that Mammon has gotten the better of us. We toil and spin so desperately over it that we have become negligent about what God’s Good Providence has in store for us. We toil and spin because we have become so at home in this world that we have forgotten that we were made for another. Mammon has made a mess out of us all.
This morning let admit that we sow, toil, reap, and spin anxiously over earthly gods and their fleeting promises. Nature herself silently urges us to imitate her absolute dependence upon God! The Goodness of God is so free and diffusive that its runs over and fills a world full of creatures which all hang upon Him. He duly feeds them and gives them as much as they crave. He enlivens and quickens even those who never call upon His name and worship His glory. God’s Goodness moves and defines us all. He makes the sun to shine upon the evil and the good.
But we cannot leave it here. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. (Idem) O how great is thy goodness that thou hast laid up for them that fear thy name. For there is a loving kindness in God that is better than what faith can secure in this life. Redeeming Love wins for us the greatest treasure. We are made to become invulnerable to the pull of earthly riches. Our Lord has made us for Himself and knows that we are restless until we find Him. (St. Augustine, Confessions) We must find Him forever. We must be willing to lose everything. Losing everything will happen eventually whether we like it or not. For we brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. (1 Tim. VI. 7) The Lord calls us to the poverty of being always ready to relinquish everything that is given to us, so that it can be given back to us enhanced and multiplied. (The Beatitudes…S. Tugwell, p. 23) Everything we ever possess is a gift. It was never ours to begin with. When we perish, it will become unreal. We need a gift that is spiritually enhanced and multiplies, better and greater, an indestructible treasure of inestimable value and worth. We have this gift in Jesus Christ, our Life and our Love. Redeeming Love purchases for us a treasure in Heaven that will never perish. Jesus [longs] to immunize us to all unreality…to the prevailing social and economic order, to the dangers that threaten property, limb, and life. He is stripping us for the coming struggle; concentrating our forces and teaching us how to become invulnerable. (Guardini, 182) Jesus intends to anchor our minds and hearts in the reality of God’s Kingdom. (Idem)
Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: For I tell you,
that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.
(St. Luke 10. 23, 24)
Before Jesus proclaims the blessing that introduces today’s Gospel lesson, He had offered thanksgiving to His Father for beginning to generate a new kind of seeing and knowledge in the eyes of His Apostles, whose eyes were being opened, like newly-born babes, onto the new world of His mission and meaning. And yet no sooner had Jesus praised His Father for bringing new visual birth to His friends, than one man, a lawyer, stood up to assert his religious maturity and adulthood in the face of what he, no doubt, considered an exhortation to childishness or even spiritual infantilism. For those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, Jesus will respond to the lawyer’s challenge with one of His own. As it turns out, the lawyer will unwittingly both reveal his own blindness and open the eyes of others to the predicament of their fallen condition and thus the vision for that new life which Christ alone can effect.
So, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted [Jesus], saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? (St. Luke 10. 25) The lawyer resents Jesus’ blessing of the Apostles’ new spiritual vision and hearing, which seems to challenge and contradict his own. What he sees and hears seems alien or foreign to his long established religious practice. So, Jesus asks, What is written in the Law? How readest thou? (St. Luke 10. 26) The lawyer answers, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. (Ibid, 27) Jesus answers, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Ibid, 28) Jesus is thinking: It is clear that you know the Law. So if you can do this, you shall find eternal life. That the lawyer cannot do or fulfill the Law naturally becomes clear immediately and this because he does not comprehend his own sinful limitations. Thus, the lawyer, willing to justify himself –or prove himself blameless, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? (St. Luke 10. 29) Had he been able to keep or do the Law, he would not have needed to ask the question. The condescending superiority and pride in his question reveal that he does not intent to treat everyone as his neighbor. The lawyer may have known the Law, but he did not know who his neighbor was, and so was not able to love his neighbor as himself. St. Cyril suggests in asking, ‘Who is my neighbor’, he reveals to us that he is empty of love for his neighbor, since he does not consider anyone as his neighbor; and consequently he is also empty of the love of God. (C.A. Pent. xii)
This latter point will prove decisive as Jesus hammers home its implication in today’s Parable. Jesus continues: A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (St. Luke 10. 30) Here Jesus pictures and narrates the story of everyman’s Fall, and how God, through Him, will respond to it. All men, because of sin, have freely chosen to journey down from the paradise of God’s Jerusalem and into the sinful world of earthly Jericho. As a result, they have fallen in with the devil and his angels, who have stripped them of the clothing of their original righteousness and wounded them with the sting of death, [which is] sin (1 Cor. xv. 56). Fallen man is wounded and abandoned but is left only half dead in relation to God. Throughout the course of man’s fallen history great men, enlightened and educated in the dictates of the Law –like today’s lawyer, have passed by but have found themselves incapable of helping him effectively. Jesus says, All others who came before me were thieves and robbers. (John x. 8)
So, Jesus continues. By chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. (St. Luke 10. 31, 32) The Priest and the Levite represent the law and the prophets (Origen, “What shall I do for Eternal Life?”) of all ages, who might very well have the wisdom to describe man’s indenture to the Law of Sin and even the hope that is to come in prophecy but cannot offer the present Grace to help in time of need. This is because they cannot identify with the man who is aware that he is fallen from God and wounded by sin. They do not see in the ditch another self like themselves in desperate need of God’s Grace.
Next, we read: But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (St. Luke 10. 33, 34) The man who knows that he is fallen from Divine Grace in earthly life lies helpless in the ditch. Along comes a Samaritan- literally an alien and exile to the Law and Promises of Israel. Yet, Samaritan means one who observes the Law, and this Good Samaritan will turn out to be the only one who will fulfill the Law. For this Samaritan is one who is so full of compassion and mercy that he alone can impart the love that he receives from God to others. He is the love of God and the love of neighbor. Thus, he alone can heal fallen man. Only he can draw near to, touch, and remedy every man’s spiritual alienation from God. As Origen reminds us, Providence was keeping the half-dead man for One who was stronger than the Law and the Prophets. (Idem) Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil, the Priest and Levite proclaimed. Nevertheless, Samaritan means guardian who comes down with a medicine bag full of spiritual remedies. He carries with him bandages, oil, and wine, for He expects to find not only this self-consciously fallen man, but all self-consciously fallen men who know and experience sin’s desperate hold and sway in their lives. And this Samaritan sets fallen man upon his own beast -His back and will carry him up to full and complete spiritual health as the love of his neighbor becomes the labor of His lifetime.
The Good Samaritan is, of course, Christ Jesus Himself, who alone bears and carries the burden and weight of all self-consciously sick sinners on to their healing redemption. He carries man to an inn and cares for him. The inn symbolizes that temporary hospital for sinners who are merely passing through this vale of tears to God’s Kingdom. Specifically it refers to the Church, whose innkeepers are first the Apostles and then their successors. Jesus the Good Samaritan spends a night in the inn, the forty days of His Resurrection, in which He cares for fallen man and then teaches the innkeepers- His Disciples, how to continue the work He has so lovingly begun. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. (St. Luke 10. 35) The Good Samaritan leaves the innkeepers with two pence, the price He pays for the salvation of their souls -His Body and Blood. These gifts He leaves with the Church as a means of ongoing spiritual convalescence. The price has been paid, the offering has been made, and because of what Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan, has done, the salvation process has been well underway ever since. When the Good Samaritan returns, He will repay to the spiritual caregivers of the Church what He owes them –the salvation He has gifted to them as the mercy that keeps on giving. At the conclusion of the Parable, Jesus asks the lawyer and us, Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? (Ibid, 36) The lawyer answered He that showed mercy on him. (Ibid, 37) Jesus said, Go and do thou likewise. (Ibid, 38)
This morning we ponder the significance of the parable for our own lives. Who is my neighbor, we ask with the lawyer? We learn that our neighbor is not, first and foremost, the man in the ditch, but the Good Samaritan or Jesus Christ Himself. Our neighbor then is not then, first, the man upon whom we are called to show mercy. Rather our neighbor is the One who shows mercy upon us. For, truly, we are the man in the ditch in need of redemption and salvation. Until we realize this, we can never be filled with Christ’s loving compassion and care that will bring new birth in us and through us for all our neighbors. That is, until we realize that Christ Jesus is the Good Samaritan who comes to bind up our wounds, heal our bodies and souls, take us into the inn of the Church, where we are convalescing by the Grace of God through the movements and motions of His Holy Spirit, we shall never sufficiently receive with thanksgiving that Saving Love which is born to be shared. The Priests and Levites are not the only ones who pass by the real problem. We do also, whenever we forget that this inn is a hospital, and we are here because we are sick, and in need of the Good Samaritan’s loving cure. But if we accept the loving remedy that Jesus Christ, God’s Good Samaritan, brings to our fallen condition, we shall be nothing less than sore amazed as His incessant desire and all-powerful might to sanctify and save our souls. We shall be startled and stupefied with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Then, we shall not only see, hear, and obey God’s law of Love for ourselves, but we shall love our neighbors as ourselves because God’s love in our hearts cannot help but touch others. We shall receive from God, of whose only gift it cometh that [His] faithful people do unto [Him] true and laudable service. (Collect Trinity XIII) This service is to love God wholly and our neighbor as ourselves. So, with the Venerable Bede, Let us love the One who has healed our wounds as the Lord our God and let us love Him as our neighbor also. (PL 92, Luke)
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than
we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve…
(Collect Trinity XII)
The Collect for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity expresses a truth that is rarely remembered. The truth is that it is in God’s nature to listen and respond to man’s needs always, and that our natures are more often than not lazy or slothful in the supplication prayer for those needs. God hears in order to give, and what He gives is more than either we desire or deserve. The weakness of the will or desire is entirely on our side. In desiring Him more, we shall begin to receive the pure gift of His mercy, and begin to become acclimated to His superabundant desire for us.
The deaf and dumb man described in today's Gospel is an image of that spiritual condition that neither desires nor deserves what God longs to give. The man can neither hear nor speak. He lives under the conditions of fallen humanity. Just prior to the portion of the Gospel that we have read this morning, we meet a Syrophoenician woman who had no problem petitioning Jesus to heal her ill-bewitched and possessed (M.Henry) daughter, who had an unclean spirit (St. Mark vii. 25). Because she knew that she deserved nothing, she craved the morsels or fragments of that healing power emanating from Christ all the more. She honored the promises first made to the Jews but would claim also the Gentiles’ rightful share in them. She fell down and worshiped Him and cried, Lord help me. (Matt. xv. 25) Jesus provokes her. Let the children first be filled, for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it unto the dogs. (Ibid, 27) Jesus sees into her heart and fuels her faith, hope, and love. She said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. (Ibid, 28) Jesus responded, O Woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee, even as thou wilt. (Ibid, 29) Because she believed that even fragments of holiness coming from Jesus would be packed full of Divine Power, the devil left her tormented daughter. The Gentile woman is better than a privaleged child. She is a dog who yelps instinctively until God in Jesus feeds and heals both her and her daughter. Her faithful need leads her to know God in Man. Need brings the Syrophenician woman into God’s light, which is the knowledge of God. Knowledge compels faithful desire for all that God can give.
And now this morning we find that the privaleged Jewish Children of Promise have been rendered deaf and mute. The Jew cannot express his desire. His friends have to ask Jesus to heal him on his behalf. We read: And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.(Ibid, 32) Jesus is back in the land of the faithless Pharisees, the land of his own Chosen People, with religious folk, and yet here we find a man who symbolizes the Jews’ deaf and dumb relation to God. What ensues is not a conversation at all. Jesus the Word had spoken to the Syrophoenician woman because she had articulated her powerlessness and then her belief in and desire for the Word of Promise. But here is silence because the man is deaf and mute and so a silent prayer is offered by Jesus to His Father. (Jesus always takes people where they are, and then leads them into healing and new life.) And so we read: And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Ibid, 33, 34) Pseudo-Chrysostom tells us that, Because of the sin of Adam, human nature had suffered much and had been wounded in its senses and in its members. But Christ coming into the world revealed to us, in Himself, the perfection of human nature; and for this reason he opened the ears with His fingers, and gave speech by the moisture of his tongue. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, iv. 2) The dog knew instinctively what she needed. Here, Man needs to be healed with a kind of tangible demonstration of identification. From the senses Jesus moves to the spirit. Having cured the man physically, Jesus can now lead the man to the spiritual good. Now the man can be taught what he should desire truly –the healing of his soul, which the Syro-Phoenician woman knew instintively. And so [Jesus] looks up to Heaven to teach us that is from there that the dumb must seek speech, the deaf hearing, and all who suffer healing. He [sighed or] groaned, not because he needed to seek with groaning anything from the Father…but that he might give us an example of groaning, when we must call upon the assistance of the heavenly mercy, in our own or our neighbours’ miseries (Ibid, 2) as the Venerable Bede teaches us. Jesus sighs or groans to show that we must with deepest inward longing pray the Lord to open those ears and unloose those tongues that so obstinately resist His desire and ignore His truth. Jesus sighs or groans because we must seek out His healing from the innermost core of our spiritual being so that He might give to us so [much] more than we either desire or deserve. (Collect) We read next that straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.(St. Mark vii. 35) The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life. Jesus gives us life. God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth. (St. John iv. 24)
And Jesus charged them that they should tell no man….(Ibid, 36, 37) Jesus’ ministry is not about about physical healing or the letter. The true healing that Jesus brings to mankind is the healing of the soul’s desire and the conversion of the inward man. The true healing is the birth of faith that prays for salvation. Faith believes and then understands and loves. And so the real miracle in this morning’s Gospel that Jesus intends is that birth of faith in the human soul that leads to knowledge and the healing love of God. This is why He charges both the recipient of the miracle and the eye-witnesses to tell no man. Because true healing is inward and invisible, slow and progressive, it calls for neither boasting nor bragging. The true miracle is the inward need that compels faith to long for one kind of healing and yet then discovers and desires one of far greater importance. And so in light of today’s miracle, Jesus intends that the desire He has ignited should quietly, humbly, reverently, and even slowly follow Him into the deeper truth that He will reveal. So Jesus teaches us not to expect in our spiritual lives the kind of instantaneous change that cured the deaf and dumb man. After all, there is much forgiveness to receive through the labors of habitual confession. Few men have radical and abrupt conversions. Rather, the miracle of conversion is a time-tried, habit-forming process that may take as long as a lifetime before it is perfected.
Our Collect for today reveals to us the kind of miracle we are after. In it we pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. (Collect) Within our souls we are conscious of past sins; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them is intolerable. (General Confession: HC Service, BCP 1928) When we are given spiritual ears with which to hear the Truth, we begin to become conscious of the horror and shame of the past lives we have lived. Our consciences are afraid and seared, as they quiver and tremble before the presence of God. And so we realize, in the presence of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, that we need those good things which we are not worthy to ask. (Collect) We do not deserve to hear, and yet God speaks to us. We are ashamed to speak, and yet He slowly but surely unloosens our tongues. So, we can begin to pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, today. We are made worthy through merits and mediation of Jesus Christ (Collect) alone.
The new miracle will take time to perfect. So we must, without any fanfare, bragging, or boasting, patiently seek out what we need, believe in Jesus, come to know His power and desire His healing Love. With St. Paul, we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body… [For] we hope for [what] we [do not yet]see…[and so] we with patience wait for it. (Romans viii. 23) If we patiently endure God’s compassion and mercy towards us, we shall discover His love and long to embrace the gift of His Grace –what we neither desire nor deserve. (Collect) Again, with St. Paul, we must confess that We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; [for] our sufficiency [comes] from God. (2 Cor. iii. 4) Our sufficiency is the result of God’s hard work in Jesus Christ, His desire transforming our need into faithful desire, His truth broadening and deepening our faith, and His love perfecting us. The journey will be long, and He never promised that it would be easy. But if we need Him, believe in Him, know Him, and desire Him, our ears will be opened and our mouths unstopped, our hearts will be softened and our lives will be changed. In closing, let us pray with that great old Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz who expresses with simplicity and honesty that spiritual desire and the faith that we seek.
I want to open my heart and my entire self for thee like this, Lord Jesus. Only thou canst help me to do that. Say thy powerful ‘Ephphatha’ to my soul. Command my heart to open up even in its inmost hiding places to receive thee and thy glory. Command my tongue to be untied so that I may praise thee and speak kind words to others, words that carry warmth, and healing, and blessing with them. Command my complete essence to open up so that I can receive for nothing and give for nothing, richly and lavishly, as thou wouldest want me to do. (To Live with Christ, p.552)
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation, in the name and nature of the One alone whose offering and sacrifice redeem and reconcile us unto God the Father. No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and invisible. Either every human being can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal death and destruction or he can come to see and know the way that leads to eternal life and salvation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spirit choice or always an expression of his free will. The spiritual path can be trodden only by them that open up to true prayer, where the desire for God generates the goodness that leads to His Kingdom.
And in this morning’s Gospel Parable, Our Lord teaches us of the kind of prayer that leads to death or that leads to life. Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man, the Pharisee, who went up was a member of the religious establishment of his day. From him, the Christian with common sense might expect to learn the right form of prayer. He was, after all, a religious expert in Jewish Law. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican - a Jew who was despised and hated by his own Jewish people for being a traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman Empire. From him we might expect to find only a wrong-headed and misdirected manner of prayer since his life was compromised and his loyalties were divided. But what we find is quite the opposite. For, the Pharisee’s religion ends up being narcissistically empty and unfruitful, while the Publican’s opens onto the Horizon of what fills for salvation.
We read: The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Before we even encounter the substance of what the Pharisee has to say, we find him isolated, standing off by himself, safely removed from the common sort of men, perhaps intending that others should notice his piety and his earnest intention to steer clear of unclean worshipers (Parables, p. 381). The Pharisee is self-consciously determined to be noticed by others. He is a needy narcissist. Jesus describes how he prays. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speaking thus with himself,the Pharisee reminds God that he is wholly unlike most other men since he is most definitely not a notorious liver. God forbid that he has anything in common with such people – all other men, for then God might mistake him for a sinner! He is, evidently, spiritually pure and holy, and, clearly, very, very good in his own eyes. His prayer to God is a litany of his good works. As he lifts himself up trying to convince himself that he is good, in a kind of soaring flight of the alone with the alone, his demeaning and belittling of all others condemns them into the forgotten ditches of despair reserved for the wicked. He proclaims that he is so very, very good because all other men are so very, very bad! He even bolsters his credentials with his claim to sacrificial suffering. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because he is not as bad as all other men are. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious, as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fasting were done not in penance, but because the Law demanded it; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans and their sort, who had real sins in need of forgiveness. (10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) So he thanks God that he has managed to make himself so very, very good. In the end, he thanks God for himself, and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this Publican (Ibid, 11), whom he sees standing off at a distance. The arrogance of our Pharisee reveals something more. He has nothing but disdain for the Publican who dares to pollute the place of prayer with his presence.
And yet, as we read what comes next, we cannot help but be stilled and humbled by what transpires before our very eyes. We read that a Publican, standing, afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we find a man rejected and despised by his own people, alienated and shunned by his own kith and kin for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity…standing afar off. (Ibid) His inner honesty and self-conscious sinfulness prevent him from drawing near to the wall of prayer with any self-confidence. So, he stands at a distance, so painfully conscious of his own unworthiness and sin. His spiritual inventory has led him to discover his spiritual poverty. He finds that disturbing distance between the man he is and the man whom God intends him to become. He is poor in spirit and supplicates the mercy of the Almighty in fear and trembling. He is like Mephibosheth, the handicapped son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with these words: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing most forcefully the intolerable spiritual warfare that he knows only God can overcome. He says, without pride and boasting, but diligently and persistently, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) So, he comes as close as he can to the table of God’s mercy, knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon earthly things, and seek for them (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358), as St. Theophylactus has said.
Away from the Pharisee’s self-righteousness, the Publican stands close to God. He does not walk by his own light but brings his darkness into God’s light. In God’s light, he sees himself clearly and truly, and he sees also what God’s mercy alone can do for him, the chief of all sinners. Unlike the Pharisee, he is not his own teacher, as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has heard the words of the Lord, addressed to him about himself: Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46.10) He has seen himself in the light of God’s truth and mercy. He knows that he needs God, and that the Almighty alone can save him from spiritual poverty, giving to him that rich healing cure that will heal his soul. He knows himself. He sees the way. He seeks pardon for wrong done and power to do better. Thus, he beats his breast to drive out the darkness within to make room for the power of God’s liberating light.
The Publican and his prayer, which threaten the Pharisee’s spiritual impoverishment, comprise the best pattern for approaching God for forgiveness and redemption. The Publican does not delay his encounter with God until it is too late. Rather he provides us with a spiritual habit of life that we ought to embrace for salvation. With St. Paul he hears Jesus’ words: My Grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) He is one with all men, whether a returning prodigal, a faithful disciple, a despair-ridden addict, or a conscientious worker in Christ’s Vineyard. He can identify with all men, because, as Cardinal Newman reminds us, created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Ibid) The Publican’s prayer is the true prayer of all men. From his heart we find that because he has nothing, God can give him everything. He is truly poor in spirit. And, as Simon Tugwell reminds us, It is really only the poor in spirit who can, actually, have anything, because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts. For them, everything is a gift. (Tugwell: The Beatitudes)
Today, dear brethren, let us repeat the words of the Publican through self-examination and deepest confession. Let us remember that, with St. Paul, we are called as those born out of due time…and the least of the Apostles. (1 Cor. xv. 8,9) Let us claim and confess that we are not worthy to be counted as Apostles. Self-righteousness is really a sign of narcissistic insecurity and spiritual immaturity. Pharisees are inwardly weak and fearful of confessing who they truly are. They fear other men’s censure, derision, and rejection. The strong man is the honest man. The honest man is the courageous man. The courageous man is the man whom God seeks because he is after God’s own heart. (1 Samuel xiii. 14) This man is humble and yet gallant and heroic because in the midst of [his] ever so deplorable condition, the rule of the heavens has moved redemptively upon and through [him] by the grace of Christ. (Dallas Willard) This man is our Publican. He knows that the Almighty reproveth, nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) And unlike any other, God in Jesus Christ can and will save us if we open our mouths with one voice and one accord, joining the Publican, who have the honesty and self-knowledge to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Idem)
Concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.
(1 Corinthians xii. 1)
In the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity the subject matter is struggle. As always, in the Trinity season we are exhorted to so turn to God through Jesus Christ, that we might struggle to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, becoming visible and audible agents –revealers- of God’s presence in the world. And today we are reminded of a few key elements that rightly position our souls to the God who longs to wrestle with us and bring His gifts alive in our hearts and souls.
First, we learn exactly what we are not meant to be in relation to God. I would not have you ignorant…carried away by dumb idols (1 Cor. xii. 1,2) St. Paul tells the young Corinthian Church. Jesus witnesses the worship of dumb idols when He visits the Temple at Jerusalem and finds His own people wholly ignorant of the gifts that the Temple should have cultivated by way of preparation for His coming. Our Gospel lessons tells us this morning that Christ Jesus enters into the Holy City, whose Temple symbolized the Church that Christ would grow from the foundation of Solomon’s beginning. The Temple was meant to be a place of encounter between God and man in this world, but Jesus finds it rather a site of sinful commerce. And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (St. Luke xix. 41, 42) Instead of faith, hope, and love, there Jesus finds ignorance and blindness. Jesus approaches the Holy City only to find that the gift of God’s Word and Promises to His people are wholly ignored. The proclamation of God’s Word that heralded His coming is unheard by the Jews, who have been blinded by their worship of dumb idols as they engaged in false commerce. They were consumed with anything but faith in the gifts of God’s Word, now to be summed up and perfected in the visitation of His Son. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course. (Ps. lxxxii. 5) as the Psalmist says. They worship mammon and money and are far from any consciousness of the dangers that we spoke of in last week’s sermon. The ancient Jews would not hear God’s Word.
Second, in Jesus’ weeping over the sins of His own people and the sins of lukewarm Christians today, we learn from our Saviour that we ought to mourn and weep over our own sins and the sins of the Church. The Church is the new Temple of God, and in it we must grieve and lament over our ignorant worship of dumb idols. Origen of Alexandria, commenting upon these first few verses, says that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem first to confirm and establish those virtues which He desired should come alive in us. He writes, All of the Beatitudes of which Jesus spoke in the Gospel He confirms by his own example. Just as He had said “blessed are the meek”, He confirms this where He says “learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. And just as He said “blessed are ye that weep”, He also wept over the city. (Origen: Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: iii, p. 341) St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes this, For Christ who wishes that all men should be saved, had compassion on these. And this would not have been evident to us unless made so by some very human gesture. Tears however are a sign of sorrow. (Ibid) Jesus longs for us with such love that He is moved to weep and mourn over our failure to welcome His ongoing visitation to us. St. Gregory the Great writes that the compassionate Saviour weeps over the ruin of the faithless city, which the city itself did not know was to come. (Ibid) And so three of the great Church Fathers remind us that Christ uses His human nature to reveal and express God’s love for us, the forgiveness of sins that He brings to us, the salvation that He will win for us. They remind us also of our need to mourn over our ignorant rejection of the love that has come down from Heaven to be seen, heard, remembered, and embraced as the Holy Spirit makes the gift of Christ’s Redemption our own, even forever.
So, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we are called to claim and confess that we have too often and for too long worshiped dumb idols in ignorance and have failed to confess our sins and mourn over them. But what of the specifics? How can we begin to abandon the false commerce and shady business practices of this world, and embrace the gifts of our Lord the Holy Ghost? The fallen Jerusalem over which Jesus weeps in this morning’s Gospel is the fallen Jerusalem of our souls. The soul that is fallen has lost its connection to God’s Word, Promise, and Plan for its salvation. The soul that is fallen has lost consciousness of its sin because it has lost consciousness of its powerlessness in relation to the God who alone can heal, redeem, and save it.
We might recover the soul’s spiritual consciousness by looking at today’s Old Testament lesson. Here we read that Jacob rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. (Genesis xxxii. 22) Jacob, the son of Isaac, crosses the river Jabbok, which means to struggle, to empty, or to pour out. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Jacob was struggling to leave his old self, the natural man, and the soul immersed in earthly ends and profane commerce behind. Jacob can be our model for the man who empties himself of the worship of dumb idols, leaves behind corrupted desires for impermanent riches, and struggles to cross the spiritual waters. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis xxxii. 24) Possessions, money, even spouses must be left behind for a season so that true spiritual combat can begin. Jacob struggles and wrestles. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that, The Church’s spiritual tradition has seen in this story a symbol of prayer as a faith-filled struggle which takes place at times in darkness, calls for perseverance, and is crowned by interior renewal and God’s blessing. This struggle demands our unremitting effort, yet ends by surrender to God’s mercy and gift. (Weekly Catechesis, May 25, 2011) Wrestling is spiritual combat. Each of us must engage it. God struggles with us against the deceitful promises of the devil. God’s presence, His Word, Jesus Christ, struggles to purge the temples of our bodies and souls of any evil desires that pursue false commerce with the world. God will not force His saving power upon us. He does not wish to prevail against Jacob or us. He touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was put out of joint, as he wrestled with him. (Genesis xxxii. 25) Wrestling with God leaves behind a sign of our own imperfection and finitude. The thigh, which means his heart, is restless until it rests in God. God’s touch is the loving reminder that He will be the source of our healing and redemption. Jacob is touched by the love of God that saves him. He will wrestle a blessing out of God. God asks, What is thy name? (Genesis xxxii. 27) Jacob answers. God says, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. (Genesis xxxii. 28) Israel means he has striven, hunted, aspired with God. And so too must we, if we would be saved.
You and I must be prepared for spiritual warfare. Jesus weeps because He knows what we lose if we refuse to struggle and wrestle with God. Blessed are they that mourn. (St. Matthew v. 4), Jesus insists. Mourning is grief over a contradiction that we discover between ourselves and God. We mourn over our failure to rely wholly and completely on God to discover His promises for us. Our spiritual thighs must be felt to be out of joint. We must grasp that without God’s Grace we can only ever hope to hobble around this sad, sad world desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope…mourning the vanished power of the usual reign, as T. S. Eliot reminds us. (Ash Wednesday) If we fail to wrestle and struggle with God, we shall never come to comprehend our true condition as sinners in need of a Saviour. If we fail to wrestle with God, we shall never be able to see the Saviour He sends in the Person of His Only Begotten Son. If we fail to wrestle with God, we shall never see how this Son has won our redemption and salvation.
No sooner do we read that Jesus…wept than we read that He went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. (St. Luke xix. 45, 46) If we appreciate Jesus’ tears, we must also know that through Him, God expresses His Love in wrath against our sin. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth. (Hebr. Xii. 6)Let us receive this wrath as Divine Love and Desire. Christ brings us to a place of our own helplessness. Jacob wrestled with God and discovered himself. Now God, in Jesus Christ, would wrestle Satan for us. Satan underestimated the omnipotence of his adversary. To be sure, Satan stripped, tortured, and crucified Christ as Man. But what he forgot was that the Man was also God. For while Christ the Man was dying, the death had already become the instrument and tool of Christ the God’s victory over sin and Satan. In the Crucified Dying Lord, Death took on new meaning as the source and seedbed of the beginning of new life that never, never dies.
Jesus is the Love of God in the flesh. He cares for us. Jesus wept over the destruction of Jerusalem because in it He saw the ruination of the human soul. Jerusalem is fallen. We are fallen. But now Christ takes us into His loving death. In His death, we struggle to be born again and begin to walk upright. Walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour. (Eph. V. 2) Thank God for this and Rejoice! Let us mourn, so that we may rejoice.
Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail,
they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
(St. Luke xvi. 9)
In last week’s Gospel, we prayed that God’s never failing providence that ruleth all things both in heaven and in earth [might] put away from us all hurtful things and [might] give to us those things which are profitable (Collect: Trin. VIII) for our salvation. And this week Jesus illustrates how we might apply what we know of God’s providence to our present lives. He does this through The Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it, He commends the virtue of prudence for our consideration.
In The Parable of the Unjust Steward, we read about a steward of a rich man’s treasure who has been accused of wasting his master’s goods and being careless as the manager of the rich man’s estate. The rich man summons his employee to call him to account. How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) The rich man is disturbed but departs to give his worker time to give account of his stewardship. The employee is struck dumb with fear and trepidation over his fate. Because he can make no excuse for his sin, he says to himself, What shall I do? For my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. (Ibid, 3) He is enamored of his education and ability and so is not about to resort to manual labor to repay his master. He is too proud to dig ditches or to beg for his bread. He has a good mind and is determined to use it to make good out of a bad situation. So read about what he decides to do:
I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.
Though he has failed to manage the rich man’s business properly in the past, he will nevertheless use his practical perspicacity and prudence to begin to call in his master’s debts. So, he makes a deal with others who have loans with his employer. He asks them what they owe that he may return at least a portion of their debt to his boss. He ends up collecting fifty percent of what one man owed, and eighty percent from another, and returns to give to the master what he has collected. So, the lord commended the unjust steward because he had done wisely. For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. (Ibid, 8) He has used unrighteous mammon and made friends through it. Jesus tells his listeners that in earthly and worldly terms, here we find a man who used his prudence and worldly wisdom to make the best of a bad situation. He has made friends through the mammon of unrighteousness. (Ibid, 9) Having realized his careless negligence, he scrambles to use prudence to call in some of his master’s credit.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says that in this instance the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light? And why does He say that we are to make us friends with the mammon of unrighteousness? It seems to contradict what He commands elsewhere – i.e. that we cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) We learn more about it in what follows today’s Gospel lesson. There Jesus says that He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? (Ibid, 10-12) Unrighteous mammon is a term used to describe money or material possessions. If a man has been dishonest when another has entrusted him with his earthly fortune, how can such a man be trusted to increase the worth of his spiritual treasure? The unjust steward was irresponsible and unfaithful with his master’s fortune. But he repented of his error and was determined to use prudence to find favor in his master’s eyes once again. In the Parable Jesus seems to suggest that the prudence of the unjust steward is a virtue to be imitated. Of course, it is not the unjust steward’s concern with making up for his fraud that interests Jesus, but rather the prudence or practical wisdom that moves the man to recover from the mistakes he had made. Making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness involves acquiring the habit of prudence. The unjust steward is still unjust and the unrighteous mammon is always unrighteous. The mammon of unrighteousness is false mammon, ‘the meat that perishes’, the riches of this world, perishing things that disappoint those who raise their expectations from them. (M. Henry. Comm. Luke xvi.) So, is Jesus encouraging us to make use of it to advance spiritually and progress with God? This doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ intention. Rather, he is using the parable to show that all men should know that they are unjust stewards, by reason of sin, and should, therefore, always make friends with what is always unrighteous mammon, with prudence.
The prudence in the parable restores the unjust steward to his lord or master. Jesus encourages us to translate the unjust steward’s prudence first into practical prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that prudence is the application of right reason to action. Prudence is a virtue that makes its possessor good and his work good also. Similarly, St. Bonaventure tells us that Prudence rules and rectifies the powers of the soul for the good of the self and one’s neighbor. (Bonaventure: C. M. Cullen, p. 98) He tells us also that prudence helps us to remain close to the spiritual center. (Idem) The center for the Christian must include the practical knowledge of how to use the mammon of unrighteousness properly. A prudent man then befriends unrighteous mammon to help others. A prudent man is on intimate terms with the mammon of unrighteousness, knowing its dangerous potential. Prudence encourages us also to see in our neighbor another self and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So, when we are practically wise or prudent in relation to the mammon of unrighteousness, we use the perishable and disposable wealth of this world to help others. Jesus says that he that is faithful in that which is least, is also faithful also in much. (Ibid, 10) He means that we must use prudence to become faithful and honest with these lesser and least of riches because only then can we reveal what truly moves and defines us. If we can dispose of unrighteous mammon effortlessly and easily, then we show others that we are far more intent upon serving one Master and looking for one reward. We shall also make friends for Christ. Charity, generosity, liberality, and kindness overcome other men’s basic needs so that their souls can join ours in laboring [spiritually] not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life. (St. John vi. 27)
Christ makes it very clear in using this parable that most men are rather more prudent in preparing for their worldly futures than His followers are prudent in readying themselves for their spiritual destiny. If spiritual men would take as much time, care, and caution in preparing for salvation, as they do in preparing for their financial future, the world might become quite a different place. Thus, the parable has a more spiritual meaning. Spiritual men need to be more prudent about their spiritual future, converting the earthly prudence they use in relation to mammon to higher ends. Making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, (Ibid, 9) must involve cultivating the Cardinal Virtue of prudence that is on the way to being perfected through God’s Grace.
First, the prudent spiritual man imitates the unjust steward who acknowledged his sin and was thus assiduously and conscientiously determined to make right with his Master. We should intend to make ourselves right with God. Second, the prudent spiritual man knows that he is always an unjust [spiritual] steward of God’s gifts because of his fallen nature, and thus can never repay what he owes to Him. So, he must live under God’s Grace praying always that God, like the rich man in today’s parable, might be merciful. And, third, the prudent spiritual man is determined to help others with what he has been given, thus loving him spiritually as a fellow pilgrim on the journey to God’s Kingdom who will receive him into everlasting habitations (Ibid, 9) if he himself has been merciful like his Lord. Luther tells us that those whom we have helped and who have gone before us will say to the Lord: ‘My God, this he has done unto me as thy child!’ The Lord will say: ‘Because ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Therefore, these poor people will…be…our witnesses so that God shall receive us. (Luther: Trinity IX)
Today my friends let us begin to study the virtue of prudence. Prudence looks with foresight and vision into a Christian future that is meant for all men. As Isidore of Seville says (Etym. x): A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties. (STA: Summa, II, ii, 47, i.) Prudence sees things from afar and weighs how our present behavior must always determine our future destiny. Prudence is the spirit to think and do always such things that are right and what enables us to live according to [God’s] will by His Grace. (Collect: Trinity IX) Thus, Christian prudence sees that God has called us to make to ourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness so that we might be humbled, not arrogantly thinking that we are standing above those whom we help but taking heed lest we fall. (1 Cor. X. 12) After all, if Jesus stoops down to live in us, from the low plain of doing it to the least of these [His] brethren, we should humbly allow them, then, to receive us into [His]everlasting habitations from on high.
For the very beginning of [wisdom] is the desire of her discipline; and the care
of discipline is love. And love is the keeping of her laws; and the giving heed
unto her laws is the assurance of incorruption. And incorruption
maketh us near to God.
(Wisdom vi. 17-20)
The Book of Wisdom is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, son of David, and King of Israel. He lived some nine hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and he is known for his wisdom. The First Book of the Kings tells us that he prayed for wisdom, so that he might have an understanding heart to judge [his] people…[to] discern between good and evil. (1 Kings 9) Solomon was granted his wish and petition, and became so wise that the rulers of the world came to sit at his feet in order to learn the wisdom that God had given to him. Solomon was not wise in his own conceits; rather he knew that true Wisdom is a gift from God. And he reminds us also that without God’s Wisdom we cannot hope to be saved. So he exhorts his readers and listeners to pursue the instruction and discipline of Holy Wisdom. It is given to man to instruct him in the ways that lead to eternal life. Instruction is understood as the work of a loving God. When a man allows himself to be instructed in her ways, he realizes that he is being led forward into the reality of incorruption, and so he begins to love the ways of Wisdom and the virtue which she generates in the human heart. God’s gives his Wisdom to us to reveal his loving care and our own desire for Wisdom increases.
Now you might be saying to yourselves, well this all sounds all well and good, but what does it have to do with my life? Everything. Why, you ask? And the answer is, because we were made to know, to understand, and to love. This is why human beings were created. And not merely to know and understand the world around us, nor to love our fellow men. All of that is important enough. But the point is that we were made for knowledge, love, and discipline. Solomon knew all of this, and this is why he goes to all the trouble of explaining it to us! Indeed, we were made to know and to love God because he is the source, origin, and cause of all knowledge and love. And His knowledge and love are given to us that we might find the discipline that leads to incorruption and brings us near to God. (Wisdom vi. 20)
So, you say, alright, but how do I find this knowledge and love? Well, if you are an inquisitive and conscientious student of the natural world, you can find a lot of God’s knowledge and love at work there. In nature you will find the principles of order, arrangement, relation, truth, beauty, and even goodness that you neither create nor control. If you take the time to be quiet and still enough, you will find God’s mind and heart at work. And what you should come away with is a deep sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of the created universe. Such an endeavor starts a man on the journey after Wisdom. The Wisdom that is found is clearly Divine. No man’s truth has made the vast universe that surrounds him or painted it with beauty and goodness. No man’s truth has combined minute particulars into one harmonious and majestic whole. Nature itself, if we would only contemplate it, leads our minds to the fount and wellspring of God’s Divine Wisdom.
And yet there is more. While we are contemplating nature and discovering the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness in it, has it ever occurred to us just how we do this? We do it through the operation and activity of the soul. The 17th century Anglican Bishop William Beveridge tells us that we ought to marvel at this fact also. He says that he comes to know that he has a soul because he can reason and reflect. (W. Beveridge: Thoughts on Religion, 1) Other creatures have souls but don’t know it. They act, and know it not; it being not possible for them to look within themselves, or to reflect upon their own existence and actions. But this is not so with me, the good Bishop says. I not only know that I have a soul, but that I have such a soul which can consider and deliberate on every particular action that issues from it. Nay, I can now consider that I am considering my own actions, and can reflect upon [my own] reflecting. (Ibid, 2) The same soul with which the Bishop reflects upon his own reflecting, then moves out of itself to examine and study the whole of the universe, mounting from earth to heaven, from pole to pole, and view all the courses and motions of the celestial bodies, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars; and then the next moment returning to myself again, I can consider where I have been, what glorious objects have been presented to my view, and wonder at the nimbleness and activity of my soul. (Ibid, 2,3) The good Bishop reminds us that we can move out of ourselves to consider the whole of the universe with our souls, and then return into our souls, and still reflect upon and study all that we have seen and heard through our remembering and recollection. What a marvel! Have you ever considered it? And more than all this, the same soul can move the body and all its parts, and even understand, consider, argue, and conclude; to will and nil; hope and despair, desire and abhor, joy and grieve; love and hate; to be angry now, love and appease.(Ibid, 3) What a miracle is this man that each of us is! And what does all of this mean if not that we are made to know and to love and to discover finally that God’s Wisdom is the source and cause of it all?
And yet there is this difficulty. Bishop Beveridge reminds us that we are not merely souls or spirits like angels, but are souls who inhabit bodies. And our bodies always tend towards corruption, disintegration, and death. Our souls and spirits are spiritual and incorruptible. But they are joined to flesh which decays, fades, and passes away. The place of the soul’s trial and testing, in the here and now, is with the body. The way and manner in which the soul and body cooperate will determine the eternal and incorruptible state of the whole human person, body and soul, in eternity. Should the soul seek God’s Wisdom, apply it to the whole person, then in the end times man will be saved. Should he refuse the rule and governance of God’s Wisdom in this life, he will be damned.
And this brings us back to the Wisdom of Solomon. In our opening quotation we read that the application of Wisdom to the soul and body demands our submission to instruction and education. God’s instruction and education reveal the love and care of Wisdom for every human being’s ultimate welfare and wellbeing. To submit to this Divine labor, the human soul must lovingly receive the instruction that Wisdom enjoins. Wisdom desires to direct the soul to order, tame, and discipline the body. St. Paul says in this morning’s Epistle reading that we must not be debtors…to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if [we] live after the flesh, [we] shall die. But if [we] through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, [we] shall live. (Romans viii. 12, 13) When Wisdom is applied to the body, the whole person is right with God, for he is then moved and defined by the Spiritual Truth that God intends for the body and the soul. If Wisdom is not applied, then man faces spiritual death in which both soul and body shall live alienated and separated from God forever. St. Paul says that, They that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.(Ibid, 8-10) He says in another place that Christ [is] the wisdom of God and the power of God. (1 Cor. i. 24) To live according to God’s Wisdom, is to live in Christ. To live in Christ means to accept the instruction, discipline, and love that Christ’s Spirit brings to man’s life. As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii. 14) Life in Christ is an invitation to become the sons and daughters of God, whereby we [can] cry, Abba, Father.(Ibid, 15) And this opens for us an intimate spiritual window into a relationship with God whose Wisdom will enable us to love to keep [His] laws…bringing us near to incorruption…[with a] desire for [the] wisdom [which] brings us near to [His] kingdom. (Wisdom vi. 18-20)
So, God’s Wisdom is something that we can find not only in nature but also in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord. In submitting and adjusting our lives to Christ’s pattern, we can begin not only to be moved by the Divine Wisdom, but can even reveal it to others. In this morning’s Gospel Christ tells us that by [men’s] fruits, ye shall know them. (St. Matthew vii. 20) A man’s spiritual value and worth is measured by the thoughts, words, and deeds that issue forth through his body and from his soul. So man’s thoughts, words, and deeds are reflections of his rational soul’s relation to the Divine Wisdom. The soul and body are such precious gifts and tools, in and through which man can receive and apply God’s Wisdom to a life destined for eternal happiness. We can reach our end only if and when we pray for the instruction, discipline, and loving care that Christ, the Divine Wisdom, will apply to our souls as he generates the fruits of holiness that can be revealed through us. And as Solomon reminds us, it is a gift to be neglected only at our own peril. So, with Bishop Beveridge, without any further dispute about it, [let us] resolve, at this time, in the presence of Almighty God, that from this day forward, [we] will make it our whole business, here upon earth, to look after [our] happiness in Heaven, and to walk circumspectly those blessed paths, that God appointed all to walk in, that ever expect to come to Him (Ibid, 4), in the light of His Divine Wisdom, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Pour into our hearts such love towards thee,
that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain
thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.
(Collect, Trinity VI)
I do not know how often we think of the promises of God. If we are like most men, we don’t. Our consciences don’t seem to be alerted and awake to what God plans and promises for all men. We don’t seem to be readying ourselves for a future with God in Heaven. Or if we do, it is of secondary importance to this life and thus is unlikely to do us much good. We are so possessed by our lives in the here and now that our eternal destiny doesn’t seem to matter much. But Jesus is quite clear about it all. Our future matters a lot. And we had better be preparing to be with Him in Heaven and not separated from Him in Hell. God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ, and if we hope to find life with Him in His Eternal Kingdom, we must prepare for it in the here and now. Eternity, after all, is forever.
To be sure, this will not be easy. Nothing in life that is precious is ever obtained without sacrifice and hard work. And God’s promises are no exception. They seem beyond our reach -beyond all that we can desire, as our Collect for this morning reminds us. But exceeding all that we can desire is no reason to stop pursuing them. Desire is an inward stirring and passion for an object that we do not yet possess. What is beyond all that we can desire means simply what exceeds and surpasses our knowledge or ability to cognitively create. What God promises is the subject matter of His own love for us. What God promises to us is a way to that love that He provides through life in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and by the indwelling of our Lord the Holy Ghost. Beyond all that we can desire means that our desire for God will be transformed into a love far greater than we have ever perceived or known. The kind of love that God has in store for them that begin to love Him truly nowwill be perfected then because the then can never be threatened by sin. It will be a love that cannot be destroyed.
Here and now we are called to start getting used to God’s love. This must involve practicing the presence of His rule and governance in our lives. In fact, in this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul plots out the way to receive this very love. Yet what a strange way he contrives! To embrace God’s living love in our lives, the Apostle would have us consider death. In fact, he insists that we shall never receive the promises that exceed all that we can desire until we die. But what does he mean? Is he preparing us for earthly death? Most people view death as non-existence, that state when the body shuts down and all consciousness is lost. And the closer they get to it, the more fearful of it they become! But the death that St. Paul is getting at in this morning’s Epistle is spiritual and inward; it is the death that we must die here and now so that we might be saved. It is a death to whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. This is the death in which we must try our best to die to all other loves, or at least to love all others only in relation to our first love, which must be the love of God. So, it is no small wonder that so many men fear to undertake it. As G. K. Chesterton writes:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
(Ballad of the White Horse)
This death will be difficult and will involve a real inner spiritual battle on the dark plain of human existence. The man who will die to himself must be willing to wage war against the darkness of his sins. Sin a lesser love or a forbidden love which steals our attention away from the love of God. Thus, he must examine closely how his other loves have vied for primacy of place in his heart against the love of God. At first, it may seem overwhelming, and yet, in the end, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we shall realize that God has provided us with the means to loving Him above all things. (Idem) Know ye not, St. Paul writes, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? (Romans. vi. 3) You and I, as baptized Christians, have been initiated already into Christ’s death. By loving [Our Heavenly Father] above all things, Christ has taken on our sin and in His one, and all sufficient Sacrifice, Oblation, and Satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, He has brought our old earthly death to an end. We believe that the spiritual death to sin, Satan, and deathitself has been won for us by Jesus Christ. And it does not stop there. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans vi. 4) Jesus Christ has died the spiritual death that we were not capable of dying. He has died for the sins of the whole world, and in His dying, He has reopened the gates of everlasting life to all men. The living love of God is given back to the world in the death of God’s own Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. The living love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ reveals love as death, death to the self, death to all that is other than God. This living love, thisdying death in Jesus Christ opens the kingdom of God to us all once again. All men are invited into the reality of this death through Baptism, that in and through Jesus Christ they might die to themselves and begin to come alive to God.
So, Baptism is our first incorporation into the reality of the death of sin. Technically speaking, Baptism washes away the stain and corruption of Original Sin. But actual sin remains. We all know only too well that devil is not thwarted by the Sacrament of Baptism. The hard work of redemption continues long after our first Baptism into Christ’s death. If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans vi. 5-7) Life for the Christian in time and space must involve a conscious and ongoing death to our lesser loves, or to sin. St. Paul certainly speaks of future Resurrection when Christ shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. But to be counted worthy of salvation then, we must be dying constantly to sin now. This means that we must believe in Christ and that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Romans vi. 6) Thus, we are called in the here and now to ongoing repentance, self-conscious awareness of the sins that so easily beset us (Hebrews xii. 1), and with the determination to confess them to turn to God…our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Death to ourselves involves hard work.
Therefore in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches us that there can be no place for pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, or lust. Jesus reminds us that these sins compete with the death we must embrace. Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. (St. Matthew v. 21) We might very well have just cause to be angry with a brother. If we don’t forgive and hope for his salvation, then the love of God that was planted in us at Baptism is dead. Jesus is then not alive in us and His love is as good as dead in us, and we are alive to a much more pernicious future death in Hell! If we kill God’s love in Jesus, we cannot hope to be rewarded with His promises.
St. Paul reminds us that when we were the servants of sin, we were free from righteousness, (Romans vi. 20)…but now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. (Romans vi. 22) For, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans v. 8) In fact, Christ died for us while we were yet nailing Him to the Tree. Yet, as He was dying for us, He was still longing for our salvation. This is that kind of love that enables us to obtains God’s promises because it exceeds all that we can desire (Idem). This is the love that stoops down from heaven as the forgiveness of sins in the heart of Jesus. This love never ceases to desire our salvation. Jean Mouroux reminds us that God is present to His creature…by the love He excites in the very heart of its existence; whence it is that the whole world is tense with one immense aspiration, quickening, and unifying, towards the First-Beloved. (The Meaning of Man, p. 183).
With God’s love, we should yearn to partake of the merits of Christ’s death. Romano Guardini has said, the saints are those who penetrate into the existence of Christ; who lift themselves, not by ‘their bootstraps’ but by Christ’s humanity and Christ’s divinity. (The Lord, p. 447) Christ is the incessant desire of God for man made flesh. Christ is the incessant desire of man for God. In one Person, Jesus Christ is that love that forever longs for us to obtain God’s promises. (Idem) Remember, God has prepared for those who love [Him] such good things as pass man’s understanding. Until we allow Christ to pour into our hearts such love towards [Him] and love Him above all things, we shall not obtain His promises which exceed all that we can desire. (Idem) Simon Tugwell reminds us, God is only Himself in pouring Himself out. (The Beatitudes, p. 24) We must pour ourselves out to be full of Jesus Christ. Then, being full of that love that obtains His promises, God’s excessive love shall pour from us into the hearts of others also.
…The people pressed upon him to hear the word of God…
(St. Luke v. 1)
It must always be the case that good Christians should be pressing upon [Jesus] to hear the Word of God. (Idem) But hearing the Word of God is one thing and doing it is quite another. St. James tells us to be…doers of the Word, and not hearers only. (St. James i. 22) This is where most well-intentioned Christians find trouble. After all, we can read God’s Word and hear it, but how can we do it? The problem seems to be with the application of the Word to human life. Knowledge and understanding comprise one activity, but to be caught up in the goodness that God’s Word generates in our lives is another. Today, let us see if we might press upon Jesus to hear God’s Word so that we might be caught up in the Net of His everlasting glory.
Prior to this morning’s Gospel Lesson from St. Luke, Jesus had been thrown out of His hometown of Nazareth, barely escaping with His life. No prophet finds acceptance in his own country. (St. Luke iv. 24). So, He traveled into Capernaum where His teaching was acknowledged as authoritative. Here He cast a demon out of a possessed man, healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who had been gripped with a fever and restored others who were diseased either physically or spiritually. Finally, He retired to a desert place and prayed. But crowds of people caught up with Him because they wanted more. But the more that Jesus was preparing to give them would not be found in signs, wonders, and miracles, but in God’s Word and Will for man, so that they might begin to perceive and understand the way to salvation.
So, today we find Jesus moving down into the fishing village of Gennesaret, thronged by a mob of people who would hear the Word of God. We read that Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. (Ibid, 3) If we would press upon [Jesus] to hear God’s Word, we must allow the Word to thrust out a little from the land (Ibid, 3) of human commerce, clamor, confusion, hustle, and bustle in order to free us from those earthly preoccupations that would distract us. Over and against the usual course of human affairs, God’s Word must stand alone with men of prayer to address them from a place of concentration, that they might serve Him in all Godly quietness. (Collect Trinity V)
But notice that some are on shore and some are in the boats with Jesus. Some will hear the Word, and some will experience His Power. Thus, we find Peter, James, and John who have accompanied Jesus in the ships. And while both groups are intended to be caught up in the net of Christ as his spiritual fish, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, the Apostles must be converted first that they may then become Christ’s fishers of men. I think that Saint Peter in particular, and then Saints James and John –by reason of their presence in the other ship–represent in this story the Church and her ministers. The people on the shore represent the fish that will be caught up on land once the Apostles have been caught up in Christ’s Net from a deeper spiritual sea. There are different levels and stages of faith, trust, and obedience that pass first from Christ to His Apostles, and then from His Apostles to all others who would be saved. Some men are ready to hear but not yet digest. Others will hear and feel the blessed union of God’s Wisdom and Power.
Next comes the trying and testing of the faith of the Apostles who have thrust out from land and onto the sea with Jesus. We read: Now when He had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. (Ibid, 4) Simon, like his fellow fishermen, and unlike the crowd, has had a long and unsuccessful night of fishing. Most of the other fishermen are on the shore, exhausted, cleaning their nets, licking their wounds, and perhaps downcast and depressed for having failed to catch any fish. Matthew Henry tells us that One would have thought this should have excused [the Apostles also] from Christ’s sermon; but it was more refreshing and reviving to them than the softest slumbers. (Comm. Luke V) The fishermen on shore did not see much sense in thrusting off onto the waters again with Jesus. But the Apostles did. While the others washed their nets and went to bed, the Apostles would use their powerlessness, failure, and fatigue as a reason for turning more faithfully from themselves towards Jesus. The Apostles worked hard to catch their fish, but when they failed, they turned to Christ for the reviving of their souls. Christ knows our weaknesses and yet from them all He will draw out new and vibrant faith. Simon Peter responds to Jesus: Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. (Ibid 5,6)
Peter submits. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) Peter, James, and John were overwhelmed by the catch. They called on their partners to help to relieve the weight of the treasure that was causing their boats to sink. The Apostles were beside themselves with wonder and awe. Peter alone spoke for them as it began to dawn on him that they were being caught up in another kind of Net. We read that when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: and so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. (Ibid, 8-10) St. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of God that he experiences the effects of Christ’s words and nature’s response. Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. i. 24) effects what might happen in nature on a good day but is accelerated now with supernatural intervention. Human ingenuity is one thing but to be caught up in the provision that God’s Word generates is quite another. Peter’s unworthiness is radically other than the power and wisdom of God in Jesus. He falls down as one undeserving of such a gift. Archbishop Trench tells us that the deepest thing in a man’s heart…is a sense of God’s holiness as something bringing death and destruction to the unholy creature. (Miracles, 102) Peter’s faith and trust yield a miracle greater than the draught of the fishes. Peter knows himself as an unholy creature in the presence of an all-loving God.
The first step towards a right relationship with God is the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of wisdom that learns humility in the presence of the Divine power. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217) The fish which the men have caught are still alive, flailing, thrashing, and thwacking with all their might to return to life in the sea. Peter, on the other hand, is rendered dead to himself as he falls down and endures a spiritual undoing that he cannot resist. He finds himself the chief of all sinners in the face of an all-powerful God who promises him new life.
Christ catches Peter, James, and John in His Net. They find themselves in a state of Grace, in which all the contradiction is felt, God is still a consuming fire, yet not anymore for the sinner, but for the sin…[for they are in] the presence of God…[whose] glory is veiled, whose nearness…every sinful man may endure, and in that nearness may little by little be prepared for the…open vision of the face of God. (Trench, Idem) Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) Jesus intends that Peter, James, John, and the other Apostles should come alive as fishers of men.
So, what does it mean to be caught up as spiritual fish into Christ’s Net and to become fishers of men? Our Gospel concludes with, when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him. (Ibid, 11) The Apostles were called to be fish out of water -to forsake the world, the flesh, the devil, and themselves. They were called to be all of one mind, having compassion one of another, loving as brethren…pitiful…courteous; not rendering evil for evil…but contrariwise blessing…eschewing evil, ensuing good, seeking peace and ensuing it. (1 Peter iii. 8,9) Forsaking all is a spiritual disposition that zealously puts Jesus first, hears, obeys, and follows Him into the New Life that He brings from above. Forsaking all will mean also following Jesus to His Cross. We must press upon Jesus to hear the Word of God. (Idem) We must leave our earthly occupations and thrust out a little from the land. (Idem) Next, we must launch into the deep with Jesus and cast our nets out for a draught. Trusting with faith in the Word of the Lord alone can sink the ship of our sinfulness so that we might be caught up in the catch of Christ’s Net. Faith in God’s Grace can flourish and bloom [only if] it is welcomed; it can act [only if] it is activated, [for] all the infinitude of its power comes from the adoring passivity in which it lies open to God. (Mouroux, p. 217) The Apostles had every natural reason to return to their profession because of this miracle. They didn’t. Another miracle is at work here. God’s power and wisdom overwhelm fallen men and bring them into death. God’s power and wisdom catch us up into Christ’s Net, the Net of Christ’s assumption of our sin and suffering on the Tree of Calvary. The Son of God alone, wholly removed from His natural glory and bliss in Heaven, is the real fish out of water. We too can become fish out of water only when Christ catches us in the Net of His death for future glory and bliss in Heaven. Then, being caught up into Christ’s Net, He will enable us to be followers of that which is good…suffering for righteousness sake…so that happy we may be….forever. (Idem)
That thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through
Things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.
(Collect, Trinity IV)
Trinity season is all about growth and fertility. And from the time of the Patristic Church until our own, in the churches which retain the ancient lectionary, the faithful have sought to grow from strength to strength, in the knowledge and love of God, as they seek to become participants in the life of the Holy Trinity. For traditional Christians, the essence of the faith is found in the life that God the Holy Trinity shares with us. And the Scriptural lessons which we read for this Fourth Sunday after Trinity enable us to understand better how Jesus Christ encourages us to participate in God’s life so that passing through things temporal, …we finally lose not the things eternal. Our destination is Heaven and its character our glory.
So let us begin with today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells us to be merciful as our Father also is merciful. He encourages us to judge not, lest [we] be judged. To condemn not lest [we] be condemned. To forgive that we might be shall be forgiven. (St. Luke vi. 36, 37) Christ is trying to help us to see that we are most in need of God’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. And if this is true, then we had better not be preoccupied with other people’s sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings. We have plenty of spiritual work to do in our own lives, and if God’s Grace is to make good with us, then we had better be turning our censorious monitor away from others and onto ourselves. Judging other men and refusing to forgive them are generally accurate indicators of our having failed to see the gravity of our own sins and to feel the need for God’s merciful forgiveness and deliverance from them. Jesus likens it to spiritual blindness. Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into a ditch? (Ibid, 39) Other men might be blind, but we are called by Jesus to see. Jesus longs to open our eyes to our sins and then to the forgiveness of God in Him that alone can overcome them. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy and forgiveness. He longs to impart that gift to us, that being illuminated by it, we might help others to see and thus not fall into the ditch and away from God. So Jesus calls us to see ourselves, to take a moral inventory of our vice, to confess our absolute need for God’s Grace, and to embrace His forgiveness. Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Either how can thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me pull out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Ibid, 41, 42) Are you blind to your own sins, Jesus asks each of us today? Do you not see that you need forgiveness as much if not more than anyone else? Thou hypocrite, He concludes, cast out first the beam that is in thine own eye, and then thou shalt see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye. (Ibid, 42)See yourself, take a good, long, and hard look at who and what you are, our Lord insists. Know that what you need, first and foremost are God’s mercy and forgiveness, His love and compassion without which nothing is strong, nothing is holy. (Collect: Trinity IV) And know too that if you are not healed by God’s forgiveness, you cannot participate in God’s life and extend it to others.
I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them. (St. John xiii. 17) St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the virtue of mercy is grief over another’s distress…and it regards misery for one to be pitied. (S.T. II, ii. xxx, 3) He does not mean grief or misery that involves any kind of condescendingly arrogant pity for others. What he describes is that loving mercy in Jesus Christ that has already grieved over fallen man’s distress and desires to touch him with God’s pity. Jesus Christ grieves over our sinful state and longs to have pitiful mercy upon all of us. So if a man has been forgiven his sins and is conscious of having been filled with the undeserved and unmerited mercy of our Lord, he cannot help but be filled with thanksgiving for such a gift. Then he will wish and desire that all other men might be touched and changed by the very same love. Give, and it shall be given unto you. (Ibid, 38) God’s loving mercy intends to touch the penitent man in good measure, press itself down into his soul, be shaken together with the whole of his being, and to run over into all of his life. (Idem)
And yet, to be sure, it is not easy always to receive this gift. Good habits are hard enough to form in natural life, let alone in the spiritual life. They must be repeated over and over again until we are filled with God’s goodness. But the acquisition of Divine virtue requires a pleading for supernatural Grace: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. (Collect) And St. Paul tells us that it won’t become the habit of our lives without suffering. He says that, the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. (Romans. viii. 22) By reason of man’s sin, the creation no longer exists in glorious harmony with its Maker. Matthew Henry tells us that, There is an impurity, deformity, and infirmity, which the creature has contracted by the fall of man: the creation is sullied and stained, much of the beauty of the world gone. (M. Henry, Comm.) Man must come to see and know that though he was made to return and reconcile all of created reality to God, he has ruptured it selfishly and sinfully from his Maker. So he must discover that only by intense and determined spiritual surrender to Divine Grace can he be returned to God with the rest of creation. St. Paul reminds us elsewhere that, We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph. vi. 12) And because of it, we must keep our eyes on our Lord, laying aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us,to run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of ourfaith (Hebrews xii. 1,2). Only then will we begin to measure and value the suffering, which we encounter in this present time, as nothing compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Ibid, 18)
As we suffer to surrender to Jesus, He will both correct and discipline, and acclimate and habituate us to His virtue, that we might not only see Him now by faith but also begin to realize the transformative power of His mercy and forgiveness. Bishop Morse used to teach: To love is to suffer. Suffering the love of God to take hold of us means that the Divine forgiveness will saturate our souls and then overwhelm us with its ever-expanding intention to make [us] new (Rev. xxi. 5). A love too Divine for any human imagining or creation, and thus one unconstrained by finite limitations, will begin to approach us in Jesus Christ, who longs to conquer all sin in our lives. And that is just one side of it. On the other side, He has a work for us to do through His Holy Spirit. It isn’t anything grand, of course. God reveals Himself in and through all of creation in the simplest and most commonplace of ways. How is that? Well, He longs to share His love with us and express it in our every thought, word, and deed. As His love was made flesh in Jesus Christ long ago, He longs to make it flesh in us today. And this doesn’t mean that His love should be revealed through us in occasional and random acts of kindness only, or, even better, in more habitual and customary tithes and almsgiving. These are merely the necessary natural effects of a deeper love. He wants us to groan and travail in pain together for the salvation and deliverance of the whole of creation. Jesus teaches us that, Everyone that is fully taught shall be as his master. (Ibid, 40) Jesus as Lord has groaned and travailed in pain for the deliverance of all creation, and He desires that we should do likewise. Isn’t this strange? God wants to love His perfection into our lives through the heart of His Son. This means that Jesus Christ’s love must be so alive in us that we never cease to suffer in prayer until all men come to the knowledge and love of God. Thus, for as long as we live we must do all that lies within us to forgive and love in order to hope for the salvation of the world. The disciple is not above his Master. (Idem)
This is a tall order. But with God all things are possible (St. Matthew xix. 26). Jesus has become the merciful love and forgiveness of God in the flesh so that we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal (Idem). Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (St. John xv. 13) Christ has lovingly forgiven all of our sins and taken them into His death. We must then be dead to all sin, and most especially to the refusal to mercifully love and forgive all men. We must even pray that God’s mercy may come so alive in other men’s hearts that they will have pity upon us and thus assist us through their intercessory prayer. The sentiment is fittingly expressed in the humble petition of Pope Gregory the Great at the conclusion of his Moralia.
To great ones who can take pity on my weakness once they know of it, I open my heart to admit what they should forgive…I have not hidden my wounds and lacerations from [them]. So I ask that whoever reads my words should pour out the consolation of prayer before the strict judge for me, so that he may wash away with his tears every sordid thing he finds in me.
To be a Disciple is to be a devoted love-slave of the Lord Jesus. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are not devoted to Jesus Christ. (Oswald Chambers)
I have opened this morning’s sermon with these words of Oswald Chambers because I believe that the dangers of false Discipleship are everywhere present in this morning’s Gospel lesson. In it, we read that Then drew near unto [Jesus] all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (St. Luke xv. 1,2) What we have, it would seem, are the publicans and sinners huddled around Jesus eager to hear His Word and the Pharisees and Scribes standing off at a distance murmuring and judging Him. So, we have those who are interested in and even need what Jesus has to offer, and then the self-righteous Jews judging both Jesus and the company He is keeping. Nestled in between the two groups are, as always, the Apostles. Now, Jesus knows exactly what the religious and pious Jewish Elders are thinking and saying, and so He offers two parables. The truth of these parables is not specifically addressed to the publicans and sinners but to the Scribes and Pharisees and even to the Apostles. But, of course, what Jesus teaches is always meant for all, that whosoever hears His words might become a true Disciple.
So Jesus asks, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. (Ibid, 4-6) Zoologists tell us that sheep are selfish animals which congregate towards a safe center. (Flock and Awe….) Every once in a while, one errs and strays from the way of the sheepfold, and so the shepherd must set out to find it. There is no indication that the ninety and nine detect that one of their members is missing. Provided they are safely fenced in by the sheepfold, they are content and satisfied. The one who does miss the lost sheep is the shepherd, who then rejoices when he finds it. Jesus suggests that the Pharisees and Scribes are more like the ninety and nine safe and contented sheep than like the shepherd. The untold dangers associated with forsaking their communal safety and seeking out the lost sheep are paralleled with the Pharisees’ fear of ritual pollution through contact with publicans and sinners -spiritually lost Jews. For, as Archbishop Trench remarks, they had neither love to hope for the recovery of such men, nor yet antidotes to preserve and protect themselves while making the attempt. (N.O.P’s. p.286) The publicans and sinners are clearly more like the lost sheep in need of being found by the loving shepherd. The shepherd values the lost sheep so much that he leaves the ninety and nine. Why? Because to the shepherd every sheep is of great value, like a repentant sinner who needs to be rescued and saved. Jesus says, I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. (St. Luke, Ibid, 7) Clearly then, the truth found in Jesus’ parable rebukes the self-righteous, selfish contentedness of the Pharisees, who are neither true shepherds nor potential disciples but self-interested sheep. A true Disciple of Christ will not be a selfish sheep but like the lost sheep or like the publicans and sinners, whose straying and wandering cry out for the rescue-mission of the shepherd.
Jesus continues with another parable. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. (Ibid, 8,9) The light symbolizes Christ and the woman images Mother Church. By the light of Christ, the woman sweeps the house – the Church, and seeks diligently until she finds the lost coin – sin-sick souls whom she has negligently lost. Again, as with the first parable, the woman rejoices when she finds what she has lost, and so there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (Ibid, 10) The true Disciple of Christ will learn that he is like the lost coin. As such, he is like the publican or sinner who knows his sin but has felt to be of no value to the Pharisees and Scribes – or the religious authorities in any age, who have judged him to be beyond redemption. But if he follows Jesus, he knows that the Master will seek him out and redeem his value. As a lost coin, the true Disciple finds his worth and value in the One who persistently seeks him out, mercifully rescues him, and lends him new value and worth as He redeems and restores him.
Of course for the Pharisees and Scribes, the truth contained in Jesus’ parables fell on deaf ears, and not because they were wholly devoid and destitute of holiness and goodness. In so far as they followed the Law, they were obedient unto God. But the problem for them, and the threatening danger for the Apostles and Disciples of Christ, is their indifference to the cost of discipleship – for Christ tells them that they ought to be like the Good Shepherd who searched for the lost sheep or the woman who swept the house in search of the coin she had misplaced. Jesus tried to point out that the Scribes and Pharisees were not paying the price or cost of discipleship. For they refused to move beyond the confines of their law and tradition, out of the comfort and security of the treasure they thought they possessed, in order to risk it all for the riches to be found in the conversion of one sinner. The Scribes and Pharisees could not be good shepherds, precisely because they had never known themselves as lost sheep or the lost coin, or like the publicans and sinners.
The cost of discipleship is identification with the publicans and sinners. What Jesus seems to be suggesting is that before anyone can become a shepherd, he must first have been a lost sheep. This doesn’t mean that a man should try to get lost. A man cannot try to get lost, for then he is not lost but just hiding and concealing himself. What Jesus means is that a man must realize that in relation to God he is very much like a lost sheep or lost coin because by reason of his sin he is spiritually lost and is of lost value to God and His Kingdom.
Jesus says, Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew v. 20) Now, clearly, what the Pharisees and Scribes exhibited, and what every true Apostle and Disciple of Christ should embrace are the virtues of humility and meekness. Pride, humility’s opposite, puffs a man up with a sense of his own importance and worth. Pride measures its own goodness against other men’s sins. It has no need of redemption or salvation because it does not embrace with meekness its utter dependence upon God to secure any worth or value. But the publicans and sinners flocked to Jesus because they knew that they had no goodness to claim. Until Jesus’ coming, they had found no mercy and no friend who cared enough for their spiritual wellbeing to find and rescue them. But in Jesus they find one who lovingly finds them and promises them new worth and value by stirring them to repentance and the hope for salvation. Jesus sees in them the makings of true disciples; in them he finds those who know that they are lost and are now being found. You can’t be found until you know that you are lost sinner. The world has too few saints because there aren’t more sinners.
So the true Disciple of Christ will be a man who once was lost, but now is [being] found. With St. Peter in this morning’s Epistle, he will be subject to his fellow men, and clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. (1 St. Peter v. 5) The true Disciple of Christ will humble [himself]…under the mighty hand of God, that God may exalt [him] in due time. (Ibid, 6) True humility reveals man’s utter dependence upon God’s caring love and healing power that come through Jesus Christ alone. The truly humble man identifies with all men because as he shares the same dreadful disease of sin, he knows himself to be in equal need of redemption. St. Peter says, Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, seeing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (Ibid, 8,9) The true Disciple of Christ will see himself as a publican in need of being rescued like a lost sheep from this world of confusion, madness, and sin. The true Disciple of Christ will see himself as a sinner to be found like the lost coin, now being given new value and worth as Christ redeems his nature and carries him back to God.
My friends, let us study closely the cost of discipleship that Christ teaches in his parables. We will not grow spiritually if we look upon the world as full of publicans and sinners who, unlike us, are beyond the pale of salvation. We will grow spiritually if, with the publicans and sinners of old, we draw near to Jesus. We will flower if we remember that God resisteth the proud, and giveth Grace to the humble. (1 Peter v. 5) We will grow if we know that we were as sheep going astray, but have now returned unto the Shepherd and [Bishop] of [our] souls. (1 St. Peter ii. 25) We will grow because then we, like the woman in today’s Gospel, will search the world diligently for the lost coins of great value, Christ’s hidden treasures, our future brothers and sisters, who will join us as equals in one drama of repentance and redemption. Let us remember that there will be joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth…than over ninety and nine just persons who have no need of repentance. (St. Luke xv. 10,7) And, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminds us, the tears of all penitents is the wine of the angels.
Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God.
St. Luke xiv. 15
The liturgical season of Trinity tide is all about virtuous and godly living. In this season we are called to translate and convert our vision of Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life into habits of holiness and righteousness. In this season, we are called to apply what we know to our hearts. From our hearts, we must will the good of Christ, that teaches Christ teaches us through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. And the good that we are focusing on in this beginning of Trinity-tide is charity. On both last Sunday and this we have been called to contemplate God’s charity towards us, our reception and perfecting of it in our hearts, and then from its surplus profit to share it with all others. Last Sunday’s parable warned us of what happens in the hereafter when we do not share God’s charity here. Dives desired charity only in Hell. The absence of God’s love in the human heart spells eternal ruination. This Sunday’s parable warns us of what happens when we trifle with the charity of God. Perhaps we do not always reject the love of God like Dives, but then maybe we fritter away and squander our love on lesser things.
Every claim of God’s charity on our souls requires that with steadfast fear we submit to His rule and governance. God’s charity is far greater than any other kind of love we might experience in creation. His love is measureless, mammoth, monumental, and majestic. Jesus likens it not only to something in itself but something that is intended for others. God’s charity is unselfish and wholly benevolent. Jesus compares it to the bread that we shall eat in His Kingdom. He uses common images and situations to convey the meaning that He intends to impart. So, we read that A certain man made a great supper, and bade many…. The certain man is God. His supper is great because both its quality and quantity surpass our wildest imaginings. The supper is comprised of spiritual nourishment and fulfillment that will be the reward of those who sit down to eat with God in His Kingdom. God’s love is expansive and so He invites many. Many is a large number and shows that God intends to include as many as will accept His gracious invitation. The parable is given to us in the past tense since Jesus intends that we realize that the invitation has been made already. We have been invited to this feast of Grace from the dawn of time. It is a feast that is meant to begin now and continue until the end times. It begins in Christ’s Church and extends well beyond into Heaven. Beginning here and now, we can begin to be nourished and grown up into those who have accepted the invitation and intend to persist as guests at this great feast. If we accept the invitation, we are to begin to enjoy the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him. (1 Cor. ii. 9)
So, men in all ages have been invited by God, through Jesus Christ, to embrace the Spirit that invites us to the great supper of Heaven. Yet, how many refuse to come to this feast? Or, perhaps they come but are not really present. Being present in body is one thing but being attentive and focused in spirit is quite another. Those who are truly present at the great supper that Jesus has inaugurated must be awake, alert, and attentive to the nature of the feast and the feeding. So many through history have made excuses as to why they cannot come to the feast. The same excuses define the nature of those who are present but are not feeding truly on the spiritual fare that the Lord offers. Both groups’ minds and hearts are on other things. Whether absent or present in body, their souls are taken up with other loves and the happiness and comfort that they provide. They are moved far more by the riches of this world, busied with its cares, and enamored of its delectations and delights. There is room at the feast but no room in their hearts for the loving intention of the host and his provision. (The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, M. Scott, 154) And so they forfeit those greater and lasting riches that reveal God’s Divine charity and how it promises to keep us under the protection of God’s good providence. (Collect: Trinity II)
Notice, however, that the master in the parable or God does not waste His time with those who are careless and insouciant regarding heavenly and eternal munificence. We read that the master or God is angry. When rejected, God’s love is experienced as ire and rage. Abused mercy turns into the greatest wrath. (M. Henry, Comm.) Yet, God is depicted as turning swiftly to share His love with those who will humbly and gladly receive His charity and good providence. Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. (Ibid, 21) The great supper of the Lord is intended first for those who have been specially called to know and love God. Literally, the parable is first about the Jews, God’s chosen people and the apple of His eye. Then, the parable intends for us to think also of Christians who, having received the great fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ, nevertheless make excuses for not being present at the Lord’s Supper. In either case, should Jews or Christians stay at home or come with other intentions than embracing Jesus Christ in God’s Church, they will be dropped and damned. It is as simple as all that. They were invited to come and the implication is that they had knowledge of what had been being prepared.
The master in the parable -God, turns His attention to others. The parable takes a turn and twist for the purpose of emphasizing those who will brought to the supper. Note that now the servant bringsto the feast the poor, maimed, halt, and blind. (Idem) Those who should have believed and known the servant, Jesus Christ, the Father’s Ambassador and Emissary, and as their own Saviour and Redeemer, refused Him. They felt no need for Jesus Christ. Now those are brought who know their own frailty, fallenness, and alienation from both Divine and Human charity. They know their need and allow others to bring them to the supper. They may be literally poor, maimed, halt, and blind or they may be the equivalent in a spiritual and psychological manner. It matters not. The parable is for all ages and the temptation comes to all to think themselves too rich, too busy, or too happy to be made better. We cannot taste the supper until we have a taste for it. The penalty of refusal is rejection and our heaviest punishment will be what we shall miss. They, too, who have accepted the invitation, and have taken their seats at God’s board, must have a care that they really partake. (Scott, p. 155) To really partake, we must be spiritually poor, halt, maimed, and blind and thus in need of God’s loving in deed and in truth. (Idem)
To appreciate God’s loving us, in deed and in truth, we must realize that God is greater than our hearts and knoweth all things. (Idem) So, we must become spiritually conscious that we are all poor, halt, maimed, and blind in order to discover our real need for the healing love that only God can give. Yet, there is more. What do we read next? Not only must we be in physical and spiritual need of God’s love and mercy. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room. (Ibid, 22) There is room for a deeper felt need for what God promises to give us through His charity. Not only must we be self-consciously poor, maim, halt, and blind, but in addition we must more fully aware of our own unworthiness. And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. (Ibid, 23) Those bidden to come did not. Others have been brought gladly accepted the invitation through persuasion. Now the servant compels even others still. God’s charity calls His own, persuades others, and now compels more still. This word compel must reveal God’s passionate and urgent desire to ceaselessly pursue all men to the salvation supper. Of course, this compelling must mean that strong and earnest exhortation, which…Christ will address to [His] fellows. (Trench, Parables, Ch. xxi) This is that charity of God that persists in having all men at His Supper. This is that love that never counts the cost but always considers it the greatest treasure to have never ceased until Christ has found all His lost sheep and has them forever. The invitation must appear compelling to our hearts as we perceive the true nature of Divine Charity in Jesus Christ. Although we are unworthy of it, we must learn the compelling charitythat forever desires it. Then, we shall understand that loving Him means keeping His Commandments. And this is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. (1 John iii. 23)
Jesus says to us today:
All things are now ready, now is the accepted time; it is now, and has not been long; it is now, and will not be long; it is a season of grace that will be soon over, and therefore come now; do not delay; accept the invitation; believe yourselves welcome; eat, O friends; drink, yea drink abundantly, O beloved. (M. Henry)
Christ has not left us for long. In fact, Christ is with us through the Holy Spirit now. The Feast has begun, and we should drink abundantly. We must not delay. We must be present. We must concentrate. The virtue with which the great supper feeds us begins here and now. We must be concentrated on the Giver and His gifts. The gift is His charity. His lover will fill us with the sanctifying righteousness that begins to yield great joy and mirth. The virtue of charity will fill us. The virtue of charity will move us to compel with urgency all others to come to the Feast and find salvation. Let us close with the poet’s discernment of God and His gifts.
How many unknown WORLDS there are
Of comforts, which Thou hast in keeping!
How many Thousand Mercies there
In Pity’s soft lap lay a sleeping!
Happy He who has the art
To awake them
And to take them
Home, and to lodge them in his heart. (R. Crashaw)
Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst
thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things:
but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
(St. Luke xvi. 25)
Trinity tide is all about belief that grows into Wisdom and Love. If Eastertide might be called the season of vision and knowledge, Trinity tide is about habituation to the Good that we know and its application to our lives. To know God through vision as He reveals Himself in the historical life of Jesus Christ is not enough. Satan himself knows that Christ is the Son of God and he believes and trembles (St. James ii. 19) with a resentful fury that drives him to carry as many men as he can down and away from the love of God. Knowledge of God’s goodness is one thing; but to love, cherish, grow, and perfect it in the human heart is quite another.
Now, as we all know, learning to love God’s goodness is no easy matter. In fact, we really do need to have a vision or knowledge of the Good if we hope to apply it to our lives. In the New Testament, an accurate illustration of what it is not is found in the lives of the Pharisees. Prior to today’s Gospel, Jesus had just warned His hearers that Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Luke xvi. 13) Mammon means both riches and possessions in both the Hebrew and Greek. It can also mean that in which one trusts. Archbishop Trench reminds us that while the Pharisees’ way of life was sparing and austere –many of them were ascetics…. their sins were in the main spiritual, (Par., 343) their real sin was covetousness. For they did not trust in God’s provision, were all rooted in unbelief, in a heart set on this world, refusing to give credence to that invisible world, here known only to faith. (Idem) They believed that their theological knowledge and ritual privileges were the closest that man could come to God. As a result, they enviously resented and maliciously sought to destroy God’s presence and power in the life of Jesus Christ.
So, Jesus recites a parable. There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day….(St. Luke xvi. 19) St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the worship of Mammon is here illustrated in the prosperity of the wicked by way of temporal success. (St. TA: Hom. Trin. I) First, we read that the man was rich in earthly things. Second, that he was clothed in purple –the costliest of colors in the ancient world which clothed princes and kings. Third, in fine linen –secured only at a high price from the looms of Egypt. So, the rich man would have had a robe of princely purple and an inner tunic of the softest linen. That this was his customary attire we know since it is what he wore as he fared sumptuously every day. That he has no name is, according to the Archbishop, indicative of the fact that he is everyman or most men who live forever for this world and seldom with any thought for the next.
We read also that there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. (Ibid, 20,21) Those who are destined for the Kingdom have their names written in the Book of Life. The poor man’s name is Lazarus. His name is also translated as Eleazar and it means the one whom God has helped. That he is a beggar is clear. But because he was full of sores (Idem), in earthly life he was unable to walk and so was carried and laid him at the rich man’s gate (Idem) by those who, no doubt, prayed the rich man would have mercy upon him. That there was no relief for this man’s hunger is seen in his desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. That stray dogs came and licked his sores, reveals that he was ignored by his fellow man. The brute beasts had compassion and mercy upon Lazarus clothed in sores while the rich man and his associates clothed in purple and fine linen fared sumptuously. One had hosts of attendants to wait upon his every caprice; only stray dogs tended to the sores of the other. (Trench, 349)
So, we find a great contrast between the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus’ sickness and poverty are external and visible signs of that inward spiritual illness and destitution that each of us must acknowledge if we hope to be saved. St. Thomas tells us that Lazarus reveals to us that adversity in this present life, though short-lived, characterizes the life of the saint in three ways. First, there is poverty of possessions –a beggar named Lazarus is a sign of spiritual indigence and that poverty of spirit that needs God more than anyone else. And fear not, my son, that we are made poor: for thou hast much wealth if thou fear God and depart from all sin and do that which is pleasing in His sight. (Tobit iv, 21) True riches are found when we fear God and depend upon Him for any and all manner of goodness that He might bestow upon us. Second, St. Thomas says, the life of a Saint is found in contempt of this world. ‘Lazarus was laid at his gate.’ ‘We are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.’ (1 Cor. iv. 13) If men follow Jesus, they will be ignored and abandoned at rich men’s gates, who step over them. Third, the saints will endure bitterness of tribulations and afflictions –‘Full of sores.’ Discipline and correction are the methods that our Heavenly Father uses to refine our faith, perfect our hope, and deepen our love for Him. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth. (Hebrews xii. 6)
Next, we read, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. (Ibid, 22) Lazarus is an image of the Saint who is taken to Paradise at the time of his death. We read also the rich man died and found himself in Hell whence he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Ibid, 23) St. Thomas reminds us, Lazarus was received with honor and glory by the Angels. The rich man was buried with honor and glory by unnamed earthly men...only to end up in Hell. (Idem) Lazarus is relieved of his suffering and pain and we hear no more from him because Heaven’s Mercy is now his treasure. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and there shall no torment touch them. (Wis. iii. 1) But the Rich Man, like the well-healed Pharisees, is left out. His soul and body are tormented because while he may have known God and fulfilled the religious duties of his own day, he did not love. To make matters worse, he looks up into Paradise and knows that Lazarus is in a better state, having been relieved of his earthly suffering and poverty. So, he cries, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. (Idem, 24) The Rich Man cries out for the relief of his earthly body’s torture because he is still very much the earthly man he has always been. His own sense of superiority even supplicates the services of his earthly inferior, Lazarus. Send Lazarus to me; surely he is now fit enough to wait upon me!
Now, Father Abraham reveals the hard truth of God’s Justice. Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (Ibid, 25) O thou who trusted not in God but in earthly mammon, who trusted in perishable commodities and relied upon them solely to ensure your impermanent happiness, see what you have forsaken! Because you did not believe and trust in me, saith the Lord, you shall live with what you desired most forever in eternity! Men have one life to live, and at death they shall be judged. When a man dies, he is either taken up or cast down. If he is taken up, he cannot descend to help his lost brothers; if he is cast down, he cannot ascend up. At the end of life, every man’s faith or its absence shall be rewarded with Heaven or Hell. The rich man, with his eyes still centered upon earth, asks Abraham to rescue his earthly family. Send Lazarus to my brethren that he might serve up the truth to them (Ibid, 29), for if they see Lazarus risen from the dead, they will believe. (Ibid, 30) Abraham assures him that they will not be persuaded though one rose from the dead since they did not hear Moses and the Prophets. (Ibid) The knowledge of Heaven’s power seldom saves most men. Man is called to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness. Desire for God’s bounty is needed. Besides, the Saints are with God, they can never descend to earth again, for they are where no torment touches them, consumed with God in joyful friendship and cannot be distracted from their First Love by the desires of those who chose Hell.
In this life, Lazarus was poor but now is rich in Paradise. The rich man is now poor but still believes that his earthly riches ought to earn him the provision of his cries. Notice how demanding he continues to be. His pride believes that he ought to be honored and served. His arrogance insists that God’s honor is still owed to him. The rich man is still his own god destined to live forever in the delusion of his own power and worth. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John iv 8)
Today, my friends, by God’s Grace, let us make a moral decision to become poor like Lazarus, reaching out to God alone, knowing that we cannot pass through Heaven’s gate unless we obtain Heaven’s mercy, ‘hoping to obtain crumbs that fall from [God’s] table’. Lazarus, full of sores, like you and me, cried out for God’s love from the place of his poverty. We must lie there too and desire to eat of the crumbs that fall from [God’s] table. Like Lazarus, if I have no strength of will, no nobility of disposition, no excellence of character, Jesus says, “Blessed are you”, because it is through this poverty that I enter His Kingdom….I can only enter His Kingdom as a pauper. (O. Chambers, August 21)
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. (Rev. iv. 1)
Today is Trinity Sunday. So, following the traditional Western lectionary, we enter the season not of Pentecost but of Trinity Tide, intending no disrespect to the Holy Spirit, but acknowledging that our life in the Holy Spirit must never be severed or divorced from the Father and the Son. Trinity means three and Trinity Tide is an invitation into the trifold life of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Should we make the mistake that many post-modern churches do in abandoning the Trinity in favor a Spirit that is not accountable to the Being of the Father or the Wisdom of the Son, we shall be moved by spirits other than God’s Holy Spirit and by our own imaginations rather than Jesus Christ the express image of the Father’s person. (Hebrews i. 3)
Christianity is a religion founded on the facts of Divine Revelation. Its God is a God who wishes to be known. (The Christian Year, p. 142) Christians believe that God the Father created all things through His Wisdom, the Son, by the effectual operation of His Holy Spirit. Christians believe that the Father has never ceased to illuminate His people through His Word and strengthen them by His Spirit. In His Incarnation, Christ himself reveals the same Trinity when He obeys the Father through the Spirit, even unto death upon the Cross. (Phil. ii. 8) And following His Ascension, Christ invites all men into new life which He has won for them, promising to send…the Holy Ghost (St. John xvi. 26) whom the Father will send in [His] name that they may persevere in their journey to the Kingdom. God the Holy Trinity reveals Himself to His people, a door is opened, and man learns the way that leads home to Heaven.
A door is opened in this morning’s appointed Psalm. It is the Lord that ruleth the sea; the voice of the Lord is mighty in operation: the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice…. The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness…the voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to bring forth young…in His temple doth every man speak of His honor…the Lord remaineth a King forever. (Psalm xxix. 4,7,8,9) David understands that the Father’s voice or Word rules and governs nature and man’s understanding of it through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Isaiah is similarly overwhelmed as a door is opened to his soul also. He saw the Lord upon the throne, high and lifted up, [whose] train filled the temple…that above it stood the seraphims…. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. (Is. vi. 1-3) The power of the Thrice-Holy Trinity humbles the prophet. Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. (Ibid.5) Isaiah’s consciousness of his own sin humiliates him. But the Father sends one of the seraphim to purify the prophet’s tongue of all evil, and with the forgiveness, he receives he goes out to proclaim the will of the Lord. (The Church Times: Ibid) And, in this morning’s Epistle we learn that the same door in opened in Heaven to the Apostle and Evangelist, St. John, whose vision of God the Holy Trinity calls him to come up higher.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not easy to understand. St. Augustine of Hippo, that great 4th century North-African Doctor of the Church, finds an image of it in the human soul: The human soul is – it exists; the human soul knows –it understands; and the human soul wills – it loves. So also God is, He knows, and He wills. God is pure being -I AM; God is pure knowing – He begets His Word and Wisdom eternally; and God is pure loving –His pleasure and will proceed as Spirit always. God is one substance who expresses His spiritual life through three Persons. (De Trinitate. Aug. RC summary) Man is one substance who expresses his spiritual life through three activities. Like God, Man lives, he knows, and he loves.
But God intends not only to be known in the abstract, but also grasped and embraced practically in the human heart. In fact, He wills to be known by humans, at first, through their encounter with His Son in the flesh, Jesus Christ. This morning’s Gospel illustrates the point nicely. For here we read that a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, named Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. (St. John iii. 1) Matthew Henry tells us that coming to Jesus by night is an act of prudence and discretion. For we should all come to be with Christ ‘when the busy world is hushed’ that we might then better learn from Him. Coming to Him by night shows [also] a greater zeal for truth since we are willing to forsake the evening’s pleasures for the sake of the truth. (Comm: John iii) St. Thomas tells us coming to Jesus at night symbolizes also that honest state of obscurity and ignorance or that self-conscious humble state of not-knowing that seeks to be enlightened by Christ’s wisdom. (TA: Comm. John iii.) So, in the night, Nicodemus approaches Jesus. Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. (St. John iii. 2) Nicodemus knows that Jesus’ teaching comes from God. And he asserts boldly that God is with Him because of Jesus’ miracles and wonders. Moved by Christ’s teaching and moral goodness, Nicodemus is nevertheless blind or still in the dark about the meaning and nature of Christ’s Person. Jesus says: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (St. John iii. 3) He means that the mysteries of eternal salvation can be seen only through the cleansing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit, (Tit. iii. 5) in the righteousness of faith. (TA, Idem) Nicodemus is confused: How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb? (Ibid, 4) The only kind of birth that Nicodemus understands is that of the flesh.
Jesus clarifies His response to help Nicodemus to understand. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (St. John iii. 5-7) If man’s fallen corruption is not overcome by rebirth through water and the Spirit, he cannot be saved. The washing of the body with water is an external and visible sign pointing to the Holy Spirit’s inward cleansing, transforming, and rebirthing of the human soul. Man is born of the flesh, and so neither his body nor soul can save him. Jesus continues, Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (St. John iii. 8) Jesus says that the wind comes and goes and seems to have no beginning or ending point. We inhale and we exhale, and without a thought ever consider whence our breath came and whither it goes. Jesus says, If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (St. John iii. 12) Nicodemus is a religious ruler in Israel and in his pride has forgotten that God’s Word enlivens and defines all created life through His loving Spirit. Nicodemus, if you do not humbly believe and remember thankfully that the invisible Spirit animates your earthly life, how will you believe that He intends to birth you again inwardly and spiritually for a far better heavenly future?
God the Father’s Holy Spirit is alive and well in Jesus Christ. We speak of what we know, and bear witness of what we have seen. (Ibid, 11) But Nicodemus remains blind. He does not yet grasp thatno man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man, which is in heaven. (Ibid, 13) Man has fallen down from communion with the God of Heaven and Earth; he cannot ascend up again through his own reason or good works. The Son of Man must come down from heaven to open man’s spiritual eyes to his fallen condition that the desire of the Spirit might breathe new life into his soul. That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. (Ibid, 6) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. (Ibid, 13-15) Man can begin to return to God the Father, only if the Holy Spirit lifts him up into Christ’s Death so that he might die in order to be born again. And as man begins to be born again, in heart and mind, the Holy Spirit will lift him into the Son’s Resurrection and then into the Ascension of return to the Father. Behold a door is opened and God makes all things new.
God the Holy Trinity desires for us to participate in His life. For ours is not a religion whereby man worships an external, distant, and unreachable deity. God is pure goodness, and with the same Spirit of goodness and generosity that creates and informs all of reality, He longs to redeem and save us. Our God desires that we should be born again every new day as the Holy Spirit brings the Word of God to life in our hearts. He longs that we should be as He is, to know as He knows, and to love as He loves. When we worship the Trinity, we find our Origin and End in God the Father, derive our Wisdom and Truth from God the Son, and practice the presence of His love through the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit. And then as born again sons and daughters of the Father, we shall sing out the Son’s Word of salvation to all nations, with the Spirit’s Love that alone makes Heaven and Earth one, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord –both flesh and Spirit perfectly blended to carry us home.
He dwelleth with you and shall be in you.
(St. John xiv. 17)
Today we celebrate the feast of the Pentecost. In the Church of England, it is called Whitsunday - White Sunday, because of the white garments worn by those who are traditionally baptized on this day. Pentecost derives from the Latin that means the fiftieth day. For the ancient Jews, it marked the day on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, fifty days after Exodus from Egypt. It was also a day of thanksgiving for harvest, falling often in May when, given the temperate climate, the Israelites ingathered wheat, oats, peas, vetch, lentils, and barley. The early Jewish-Christians retained its character of thanksgiving but focused now on the Holy Ghost’s harvesting of souls for God. For on the first Pentecost, the Holy Ghost descended from the Ascended Christ and into the hearts of the Apostles, vesting and mantling them with the spiritual gifts that would generate new communion with God the Father.
So, today we are bidden to contemplate this new movement of the Holy Ghost at the time of the Church’s first Pentecost. Yet we should not think that the Holy Ghost had been dormant or inactive prior to the coming of Christ. The Old Testament is full of references to the Holy Ghost’s role in creation and Jewish man’s hope for salvation. In the Creed we say, I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son…. We believe that the Spirit’s lordly rule and governance are essential for animating all created life. The Spirit is that Third Person of the Blessed Trinity without whom creation would not be. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. i. 2) The man who fails to grasp this is like the one who knew not his Maker, and him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit. (Wisdom xv. 11) This is the Spirit who comes upon priests, prophets, and kings to fortify them physically and spiritually against their enemies. King David tell us that The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue. (2 Sam. Xxiii. 2) He spake by the prophets. Beyond creating and sustaining, we know that the Holy Spirit carried warnings, prophecies, and counsels to men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and others. Monsignor Knox tells us that by the Holy Spirit they were moved to say various things, much of which it is difficult to understand, and some of which they probably didn’t understand themselves. They were carried away by the impetus of the Holy Spirit, and the great point is that many of the things which they said, or rather which He said through them, were prophecies about the coming of Jesus Christ. (The Creed in Slow Motion: p. 143) The Holy Spirit, in other words, was hard at work leading the Jewish people to prepare them for a fuller revelation of God’s promised salvation and redemption. He prepared them for the day when the Word would be made flesh in Jesus Christ and then for that time when the same Word would come alive in their own hearts and souls. And lest we think that He works by a kind-of Divine possession that violates human nature, we must
remember that He comes only to those who welcome Him freely with pleasure, desire, and joy.
For it is the work that He invites men into that is of uttermost importance to the Holy Ghost. It comes about only through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ has ascended to the Father, and from there He desires to continue His work of salvation in the hearts and souls of all men –indeed out of the raw materials of any human life that will forsake all and follow Him. For Christians, Pentecost is the moment where earthly life begins to blend with heavenly desire. For Christians, Pentecost is that moment when communion with God begins afresh through divine rapture. It is the fulfillment of the promise offered by Jesus to his friends: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (St. John xiv. 15-17) Again, the offer is not forced. If ye love me. God in Jesus respects man’s power of free will. If…then....The invitation is conditional. The Holy Ghost comes only to those who desire the Spirit of Christ. The ongoing work of God hinges upon desire and love.
Our first encounter of it is found in today’s Epistle reading taken from Acts. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 1-4) To so many who read this text, the event seems alien and embarrassing. Even many a Christian finds himself more like the early witnesses to this paranormal event who were in doubt, or, mocking said, these men are full of new wine. (Ibid, 12, 13) We tend then to think that whatever happened to the Apostles long ago is wholly mythical and thus beyond what can happen to sensible men. And yet, we do well to remember that the first receivers of this heavenly impulse were men who were not remarkably unusual in any way. They were common fishermen and observant Jews. They were pious and industrious middle-class men who were genuinely interested in everything that Jesus of Nazareth said and did. Their last days with Him began in sadness, fear, and shame. Later they were filled with justifiable wonder and astonishment. When they finally began to obey and follow, it was the consequence of a logical conclusion. They made sense out of what they had experienced as normal men.
Their transformation in relation to Jesus all happened, mostly, in one place –the upper room or cenacle. This is where we first find them today. In it, they had learned of an impending betrayal that He foretold. To its safety, they had fled in fear and cowardice when He was dying on the Cross. Into it again came the Risen Christ to invite them into fellowship with His Resurrected Being. In the same cenacle today, we find that He has sent the Holy Ghost. And while these men and women are not any different from you or me, one thing is significant: as before, in the same place, they were watching and waiting for what would come next. They were gathered together in unity of purpose. (Ibid, AV, Knox, ii. 1) Jesus had said, Tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high. (St. Luke xxiv. 49) Because they believed Him and trusted His promise, the Holy Ghost came upon them, and they began the work of spreading the Gospel Truth to the nations.
But how can we be shaken and moved by the same work that the Holy Spirit began in the lives of the Apostles long ago? The Holy Ghost intends that we should abide in Christ’s love and yield the fruits of His righteousness, and yet it seems in our own time that men’s hearts have grown cold to the Gospel. Jesus says to us today, If ye love me, keep my commandments. If…then. So, we must ask ourselves this: Do we love Jesus enough to keep His commandments? If not, or, if we hesitate [to obey Jesus], it is because we love something else in competition with Him, i.e. ourselves. (My Utmost…, p. 307) But we believe that Jesus is God’s own Loving Word and Articulated Intention for us. Through this Wisdom, by the Holy Ghost, we are created and sustained every moment of our lives. Through this Wisdom made Flesh in union with the Holy Spirit, we believe that our sins have been destroyed and our salvation won. Does it require such a leap in faith to believe that we can abide in Christ’s love by the indwelling of His Spirit who shares their victory over sin, death, and Satan? We cannot abide in Christ’s love unless we allow His Spirit to take possession of our lives. His presence was overwhelmingly effectual at the First Pentecost because the Apostles’ watching and waiting were characterized by their longing to abide in Christ’s love and experience His effectual presence at work in their souls. If our watching and waiting are tempered by the same obedient desire, the Holy Ghost, even the Spirit of Truth, will abide with us forever. (St. John xiv. 16)
So today, we must pray that the infinite and eternal Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who workest all in all…will pardon all our resistance to His motions…and will fan the flames which He ever enkindles in our breasts. We pray that He may…enlighten our minds and purify our hearts that we may be fit to receive and entertain Him, as the Guide and Comforter of our souls, working mightily upon our hearts, fitting and suiting our souls to that glory which is unspeakable and everlasting. (B. Jenks, 354) At the first Pentecost, the irresistible force [of the Holy Spirit]…was compressed into a single narrow compass; and the result was a kind of flood, a kind of explosion. (Sermons, Knox, Ign. Press, p. 477) That flood or that explosion is the rushing mighty wind of Christ’s Spirit who still longs for us to abide in Christ’s love as He carries us into that work that will bear both us and others to His Kingdom. With the poet let us pray that the work of His love will ravish us.
With all thy Heart, with all thy Soul and Mind,
Thou must him love, and his Beheasts embrace:
All other Loves, with which the World doth blind
Weak Fancies, and stir up Affections base,
Thou must renownce, and utterly displace;
And give thyself unto him full and free,
That full and freely gave himself for thee.
Then shalt thou feel thy Spirit so possest,
And ravisht with devouring great Desire
Of his dear self, that shall thy feeble Breast
Inflame with Love and set thee all on fire
With burning Zeal, through every part entire;
That in no earthly things thou shalt delight,
But in his sweet and amiable Sight.
Ascension-tide is the briefest liturgical season in the Church Year. It lasts only ten days. We believe that on the fortieth day after Easter Christ ascended to the Father. Ten days later the Holy Spirit was sent into the womb of the nascent Church on the feast of the Pentecost or Whitsunday. So, we have but a few days to examine the significance and meaning of the Ascension for us.
The Ascension is Jesus Christ’s return to the eternal state that He shares, as Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Yet there is a real difference. In the Ascension, Christ Himself as the Word made Flesh returns to God human nature as redeemed and recapitulated to the Father. It seems rather difficult to think about this. But we believe that the Ascended Christ is the New Adam. In and through Him, human nature has conquered sin, death, and Satan. In and through Him we have a restored and even more powerful union and communion with God the Father. In Him, we can participate in His victory over sin and death and live in and through His Resurrection and Ascension. In Christ the Son of God, we can rise, ascend, and dwell with God the Father once again.
Faithful man in all ages has been yearning to ascend back to God. And yet, as the Jews remind us, he has found it most difficult because he lives in the midst of a godless and idolatrous people. There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities. (Is. lxiv. 7) The ancient Jews were conscious of how their sin handicapped their relationship with God. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, this is no excuse for despair. But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. Be not wroth very sore, O Lord, neither remember iniquity forever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people. (Ibid, 8,9) The whole of the world may abandon God, but the prophet remains faithful and true. Israel might be spiritually undone, but the prophet lifts up his eyes unto the hills from whence cometh his help (Ps. cxxi. 1).
With the Psalmist, he acknowledges that he is powerless to fight against spiritual principalities that seek to undermine his faith. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help of man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) Spiritual desire is stirred passionately within him, as he sings the song of faith and hope. O GOD, my heart is ready, my heart is ready; I will sing, and give praise with the best member that I have. Awake, thou lute and harp; I myself will awake right early. I will give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the peoples; I will sing praises unto thee among the nations. (Ps. cviii. 1-3) From the ground of his soul, the fire of faith envelops, informs, and consumes his heart. The music of the lute and harp calls him into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what shall surely soon come to pass. For thy mercy is greater than the heavens, and thy truth reacheth unto the clouds. Set up thyself, O God, above the heavens, and thy glory above all the earth; That thy beloved may be delivered: let thy right hand save them, and hear thou me. (Ibid, 4-6) The glory that saves must come down from above from the one who sits at God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out for in hope was the Incarnation of God’s right-hand Man, even His own Son. What Isaiah desired has come down to the earth in the Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. The Word of God’s promise was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation was that every man might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1) Man was made to transcend the limitations of the external and visible world, to obey God’s will, and to become clay in the hand of the potter so that he might one day return to his Maker.
To return to our maker, we must be placed into the kiln of the potter. This cannot be done without Jesus Christ. He must take us into the kiln that burns off the impurities and defilements of sin. His suffering and death are the effects of entering God’s kiln. God the Father is the Potter who is firing up the clay for new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend into Heaven. As Paul Claudel writes, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, the highest expression of creation, rises from the depths of matter where the Word was born by uniting with woman’s obedience, toward that throne which was predestined for Him at the right hand of the Father. From this place He continues to exercise his magnetic power on all creatures; all feel deep within them that summons, that injunction, to ascend. (I Believe…159) God’s Son becomes the clay that will be fired up in the kiln as a Sacrifice to God. Throughout the whole of His life, He denies Himself so that He might become clay in the hands of God the potter. The fiery furnace of the Fallen creation is for Him the kiln in which human nature must be purified and perfected so that in the same fire He might ascend fully and completely back to the Father. The Ascension is the moment when our perfected human nature in Jesus Christ returns to the Father. From His seat in Heaven, Jesus Christ calls us to join Him through the Holy Ghost. When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me. (St. John xv. 26) From Heaven, the Son of God will send His Spirit into our hearts and thus begin to remold and remake us in the kiln of His fire.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love can place us in the kiln for purification and cleansing, our eyes must pursue and follow persistently and diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the reason for His Sacrifice. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate the passion of the ascending Jesus. We are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things, all of us, capable of consecration. Then it is, that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. (Sermons…) Beneath the surface and into the heart of this spiritual matter we follow the fire of love that consecrates Christ’s Sacrifice as the Father’s plan for us. True Sacrifice is clay in the hand of the potter. True Sacrifice becomes the Giver’s Intention. Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
Christ was now, indeed, somewhat further from the Apostles than He used to be; further, even, than He had been from Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. There they had overheard His prayer, though He knelt beyond them up the hill. Now He was further still ahead, they could not see or hear Him. But the further He was from them, the nearer He was to the heart of God; further from those who prayed but nearer to the Mercy to whom all prayer ascends. (A. Farrer: Weekly paragraph…)
The Father intends our salvation always. His eternal mercy is the reason for the salvation that Christ has won for us. Our minds and hearts must follow Jesus upward and into the Eternal Beginning Point of all Redemption. In the fiery flame of spiritual love, we must tend upwards and burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire. (A. Farrer: …paragraph for Ascension) We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might be blended to that of Christ who is always active and longing to make us supernaturally new as we encounter the fire of God’s mercy. We pray that in faith we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fireof Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that we cannot be remade by the potter without rising above and beyond this sinful world. Over and against our old, earth-bound smoldering darkness we encounter the life, light, and love of the Father’s intention for us. Christ who now sits at God’s right hand, interceding and pleading for us, longs for us to enter the unending Sacrifice of His Ascended Love for the Father. We pray that our love might burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire and be wholly consumed in it.
St. Peter tells us this morning that the end of all things is at hand because Christ has completed His Sacrifice for us to the Father. We must be therefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) The fire of Christ’s Ascension must stand in sharp contrast to those little fires that burn in our hearts for insignificant and unsatisfactory joys. Trusting that Christ now reigns in the power of His glorious majesty, we must have our conversation with Him in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We pray that the Holy Spirit will seize our hearts so that we might humbly confess all our sins and rise into Christ’s healing fire. We pray for the steadfast courage to battle Satan through the power of Christ’s fiery Sacrifice. We contemplate the Ascended Jesus so that we may feel the powerful attraction of Christ’s Grace and Holy Spirit, to draw up our minds and desires from the poor perishing enjoyments here below, to those most glorious and everlasting attainments above where Christ sits at the right hand of God. (Idem, Jenks) Christ’s power to attract, absorb, and asphyxiate our hearts as we suffer and die to ourselves in order ascend in Him are captured powerfully in the words of the poet:
Lord, when the sense of thy sweet grace
Sends up my soul to seek thy face.
Thy blessed eyes breed such desire,
I die in love's delicious Fire.
O love, I am thy Sacrifice.
Be still triumphant, blessed eyes.
Still shine on me, fair suns! that I
Still may behold, though still I die.
Though still I die, I live again;
Still longing so to be still slain,
So gainfull is such losse of breath.
I die even in desire of death.
Still live in me this loving strife
Of living Death and dying Life.
For while thou sweetly slayest me
Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.
(A Song: Richard Crashaw)
And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
(St. John 15. 27)
Ascension Day is sadly a spiritual feast that elicits little attention in the post-modern world. Like His Conception –celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration that too many people avoid to their great peril. It would seem that our Lord’s beginning and ending are not heeded with sufficient spiritual interest. The Conception marks the union of God with Man; God came down from heaven and was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary as Man. The Ascension marks the return of Man to God or the reconciliation of our humanity with God the Father. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us to recapitulate and generate new life for all Mankind with God; and now He carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest the invisible source of God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of Christ’s descent and return to the Father. God comes down to be made Man in the Person of His Son, is enfleshed, reaches out, is rejected, suffers, dies, rises, and now ascends back to the Father. And so what we celebrate is one movement of Divine Love in and through the Word that is always descending or coming down to us in order to ascend and return us to our proper destiny and eternal communion with God in Heaven.
Christ’s beginning coming to us in Conception is the beginning of God’s redemption of human nature. In it, He takes our Manhood into God, a Manhood that had hitherto rejected and removed itself from God the Father’s will. Man had willfully rejected God’s will and way for human life, and so had secured for himself a false freedom that ended up divided between good and evil. Man’s forfeiture of the good life earned him a life of suffering, sin, and death. Now in Christ, God had entered the man-made land of alienation from God. God had blasted through the wall of separation and division to open the door to His presence once again. God had come down from heaven and joined Himself to the sorry predicament of lost human nature. Silently and invisibly the reconciliation of Manhood to God began in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Between Conception and Ascension much had happened. Our liturgical memory in the life of the Church is an ongoing meditation upon it. There is the Christ-event, the activity and motion of God in Man, going about and yielding and generating all manner of goodness. There is man’s rejection, abandonment, and betrayal of it. There is then pure love offered as the perfect sacrifice to be implanted and rooted in all men’s hearts as the seed of a new kind of death and new life. For even in the unjust death of God’s own Son, gladly assumed and suffered by Christ, there is the never-ending love, yearning, and desire for all men’s salvation. The same love flows up out of Christ’s death and the grave, and for forty days illuminates and enlightens the hearts of believers, old and new. In Eastertide the faith is made new, knowledge is established, hope is enlarged, and love is made strong. Inwardly and spiritually the followers of the Risen Lord come to believe, grasp, and penetrate the mystery of God’s salvation love in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Man is forever moving towards men and catching them up in the net of His Salvation Being. He is alive. He is lifting the hearts and souls of believers into the eternal and unchanging moving spiritual center of God’s desire for Man.
So with the Ascension, we are being moved back into the sound of silence and the movement of stillness. Ascension moves Man back into the stillness and silence of the Conception in the Virgin’s womb. The visible Christ returns to the Father. The invisible Christ takes His friends into a place and space of new conception and new birth. The 6th-century Kontakia of St. Romanus puts it this way:
He Who descended to earth, as He alone knew how, Rising up from it, again as He alone knew how, took the ones whom He loved, and gathering them together, He led them to a high mountain in order that, when they had their minds and sensibilities on the height, might forget all lowly things. And so, when they were led up to the Mount of Olives, They formed a circle around the Benefactor, As Luke, one of the initiates, narrates in full. (Lk. 24:50-53) The Lord, raising His hands like wings-- Just as the eagle covers the nest of young birds which she warms-- Spoke to the nestlings: "I have sheltered you from all evil Since I loved you and you loved Me. I am not separated from you; I am with you, and no one is against you.
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (St. Luke i. 46) Mary was lifted up then and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. He came down into the lowly earth, and into the depths of Man’s sorry sinful state, far removed from Heaven, some thought, into the Virgin’s womb. Now He leads His friends to a higher place. Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. (Psalm 24. 7) Lift up your souls, Jesus says to His Apostles, and my eagle’s wings will lift you up into this high place, far above the mundane and earthly space of your alienation from God. Come with me, up, higher and higher. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth. Come, we are moving into the Father’s bosom. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…Behold I make all things new. (Rev. 21) This is your reconciliation with the God who dwells on high. It begins now. Be not afraid, follow me, for I am with you. Come up with me and I shall fill you with a love that destroys despair and raises you far above your sin and death. My prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that I am. A greater than Moses is here. Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven. A greater than Elijah is here. Austin Farrer says this:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same way, Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ’s love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ calls His Apostles and us to lift up our hearts and to journey to heaven with and in Him. The fire of His love has always burned upward toward His Father. It leaps up to our Beginning and our End. It rises to find consummation in the Father’s heavenly embrace. It extends from His new humanity, our humanity, to find its true home and spiritual rest in Heaven. It begins with God and ends with God. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire of Love. Creation and Redemption are the evening and morning of one day. Christ desires to spread His love abroad in our hearts. He intends for us to be as on fire as the Apostles were long ago. He has forgiven us, broken down the wall of partition separating us from God. Now He will lift us into the blaze of unending longing and passion for God and salvation.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but our longing for our God-given meaning and definition, true happiness and joy that must be at the heart of our created natures? What is this fire but a determined passion to embrace and obey whatever we must in order to discover the Love that overcomes our sin? For Jesus is the Word of God who intends not for us to have Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is God’s Word of Love for us made flesh, and that desire is to be made flesh in us. The earth cannot hold me. Heaven takes hold of me. Let it take hold of you also. Christ leads captivity captive- captive to the inner dynamism of His own Holy Spirit. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God (Village Sermons), as Bishop Westcott reminds us. We are being transformed into service as servants. We are being lifted up; we rise through the fire of Christ’s love for the Father. With Him in heart and mind, we thither ascend that with Him we might continually dwell. (Collect) Christ ascends and so too must we ascend.
As Cardinal von Balthasar puts it: The Transfigured One took the Apostles’ hearts with Him to God, and they will never again feel altogether at home in this temporal world. For that part of the world that they most loved is now with God. And this is why everything that they see on earth becomes transparent to heaven. The Holy Spirit, which the Son sends to them from heaven, kindles in them the fire of longing in which every image on earth becomes radiant for heaven, for the everlasting life which springs up from triune love. Our home is in heaven. We have come from God and must return to God. In this Ascension tide, let us with deepest desire begin the journey home. Let us desire to do God’s will that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. And let us know, that if we are following Christ, inwardly and spiritually, indeed we shall suffer in the world. But then remember His words to us: Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (St. John 16. 33)
These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might
have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation but be of good cheer;
I have overcome the world.
(St. John xvi. 33)
Today we find ourselves on the Fifth and final Sunday of the Easter Season. Today is called Rogation Sunday because our English word is derived from the Latin word rogare, and it means to petition, ask, or supplicate. The tradition of Rogation Sunday hails from the 4th century and was standardized in the Latin Church by Pope Gregory in the 6th. It was originally a Roman festival called Robigalia, which comes from robigo – meaning wheat rust, a grain disease, against which pious pagans petitioned the gods by sacrificing a dog to protect their fields. In England, on Rogation Sundaysome clergymen and their flocks process around the parish boundaries to bless the crops and pray for a fruitful harvest…and, with any hope, pray against soul rust that leads to Hellfire and Damnation.
But the original purpose of Rogation Sunday goes back to Jesus’ opening words in today’s Gospel: Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you. (St. John xvi.) Jesus’ words follow the prophecy of His eventual Ascension back to the Father, where He says, In that day, ye shall ask me nothing. (Ibid, 23) Jesus was preparing His Disciples for that new risen life that He would win for them as they shall ask the Father in the name of Jesus. But both the petitioning and the rewards would depend upon the coming of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus teaches us today is that we must ask the Father in or through His Name for the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Word made flesh through whom we pray and supplicate the Father. For this reason, we end every prayer with through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus says today: Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (Ibid, 24) Notice that the end of our asking is is that our joy may be full. (Idem)Eastertide is all about learning to ask for what shall fulfill our heart’s deepest desire – the fullness of joy. For what else is Eastertide about than how the resurrection from sin, death, and Satan begins to give us that joy that God has in store for us? But to begin to obtain that joy, we must set our sights on those things which are above and not things of the earth. (Col. iii. 2) In heart and mind, we must follow Jesus back to Heaven. Here alone we shall find that goodness that alone yields the perfect joythat will have no end.
But what is this joy? Christian joy is found in the sweet surrender of Jesus to the fulfillment of God’s will. True joy is found in that delight of the Father’s Word, Jesus Christ, that always emanates His Love. It is not found first and foremost in bodily health, through earthly ambition and success, by securing temporal riches and treasures, and not even in gaining converts and in seeing the success of God’s work! True joy is found in the vision of God the Father whose Love begets His Word, His Truth, His Wisdom. True joy is found in the experience of God the Father, begetting His Word, by the Love of His Spirit.
And to appreciate God in Himself, we must leave behind the cares of this world which choke our contemplative exercise. If we are consumed with this life and its earthly comfort, we shall never have the time to behold the Father’s Eternal Word of Love for us as the Ascended Christ enters our hearts. To get into right relation with God, we must follow Jesus, that where He is, there we might be also. (St. John xiv. 3) Bishop K.E. Kirk has this to say about contemplation:
Contemplation, or the Prayer of Simplicity or Quiet, is the highest interior activity of the spiritual life - indeed, it aims not at being an activity at all, but at reducing the soul to a purely passive condition in which it may listen, unimpeded by thoughts of self or the cares of the world, to the voice God alone.' As rest is the end of motion so contemplation is
the end of all other…internal and external exercises; for to this end, by long discourse and much practice of affection, the soul inquires and tends to a worthy object that she may quietly contemplate it and...repose with contentment in it.'
(Some Principles of Moral Theology, p. 163)
Thus, stillness and quiet are necessary preconditions for the relationship that Jesus desires for us to have with our Heavenly Father. If in stillness and quiet we become passively open to God’s presence, we shall be postured spiritually to find eternal joy. Jesus says today, The time is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in parables, but I will tell you plainly of the Father. (Ibid, 25) In stillness and quiet, in a plain way, Christ the Word will lead us back to the Father. I came forth from the Father, He says. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that this was for three reasons: (1) That He might manifest the Father in the world: ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.’ (St. John i. 18) (2) To declare His Father's will to us: ‘All things that I have heard of My Father I have made known unto you.’ (St. John xv. 15) (3) That He might show the Father's love towards us: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him….’ (St. John iii. 16) [Easter Homilies: XII] Jesus the Word reveals the Father to us. In addition, He reveals the Father’s will for us. And, finally, He shows that the Father’s will for our salvation is the deepest expression of His Love for us through the coming of the Holy Ghost. This is God’s joy. In stillness and quiet, if we ask, Christ will lead us to the Father, disclose His will, and provide the way of Love that leads us home to Heaven. Christ must leave us because by His leaving He gives us an example. ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.’ (1 St. John ii. 15) ‘Ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.’ (St. John xv. 19) Christ leaves us so that we might follow Him to that better and lasting place where true joy is to be found. He must leave us and ascend to the Father so (1) That he might intercede with Him for us: ‘I will pray the Father.’ (St. John xiv. 16) (2) That He might give to us the Holy Spirit: ‘If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you.’ (St. John xvi. 7) (3) That He might prepare for us a place with the Father: ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’ (St. John xiv. 2) To which place may He lead us. (Idem) Christ leaves us to plead our cause, to send His Spirit into our hearts, and to prepare a place for us. This should begin to stir our hearts for the journey after eternal joy.
God’s Word has been spoken through Jesus Christ in order that we might be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deceiving [our] own selves, as St. James says this morning. St. James says that we must be willing to spend enough time – a lifetime in fact, with God’s Word, Jesus Christ, so that what we see in contemplation we might do in Love because it leads to true joy. We shall desire to obey because Loving the Father’s Word, we hope to find true joy. Monsignor Knox tells us that being a hearer of God’s Word and not a doer – the man who looks in the mirror and forgets what manner of man he is, is much like someone who listens carefully to a reading of Thomas a Kempis’ ‘Imitation of Christ’. He understands it and thinks that the book is really about Christians like himself – he finds a reflection of himself in it. [But] it is only if he will give a good long look at our Lord’s teaching that this self-satisfied person will see the real picture which it conveys, very different indeed from the ‘self-portrait’ that he first found in it! (Epistles and Gospels: Know, p. 138) Jesus the Word of God conveys to us a picture of Himself. God the Father sees us in Christ the Word, the picture of who we were made to become. Forsaking this, we become self-satisfied. Then we reveal that we are not in need of finding God’s true joy through the Father’s Word of Love in Jesus Christ. But the real picture that Jesus should convey to us that we should love neither in word nor in tongue but in deed and in truth (1 John iii. 18).In our self-portraits, we must begin to see what every man ought to look like in Jesus Christ. We must long to see ourselves in Jesus Christ, the Father’s Word, Plan, Purpose, and Intention for us. We must long to progress in being acclimated to this Word of Love to find true joy.
When contemplating the saving life of Jesus and hearing His Word that has overcome the world and given to us the perfect law of liberty that moves in and out of God the Father’s presence, we shall begin to find our true selves. This will be the substance of our joy. Again, to reach this place of joy, silence and contemplative stillness are all-important. What we must silence in ourselves is all superficial converse with other men. What we must silence is the earthly craving for impermanent joy.Then our spiritual stillness will lead us into a deep desire to imitate what we contemplate –Christ in union with our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit’s Love. For, as Mother Teresa tells us:
In the silence of the heart, God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself (–with His Holy Spirit.) Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
(Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers)
As we contemplate Christ in glory today, let us long to be filled with Christ, the Word of God’s Love. Let us find in Him that self-emptying that is always filled with the Father’s Love and Desire for us. In both let us discover the joy that knows no end.
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians v. 2)
In Eastertide we walk with Jesus in two ways. In one way, we walk back through our memories to the historical facts of Jesus life. We try to remember what Jesus said and did, how the Apostles responded to Him, and what was accomplished once long ago in time and space for the purposes of man’s future salvation. We shall remember also, I hope, that the point of our memory's exercise is for history to open with promised power onto the horizon of heavenly desire. The earthly life and witness of Jesus Christ is offered to us as the means by which we can move from history into eternity. He invites us to become one with Him, members of His Body –the Church, so that we who live in the ephemeral and passing nature of time and space might be taken up into the Kingdom of God. Christ tells us today that, It is expedient that I go away. (St. John xvi. 7). He must go away in one way so that He might come to us in another and thus ensure our translation to Heaven.
So Eastertide is all about looking back and looking forward. We must walk as the Apostles walked looking backward on the Parables and Miracles, and yet walking forward in the hope offered by His Resurrection. If we look back on the history of His life, we begin to see who and what He was all about. His final departure from this world in the flesh can make sense only if we see what He intends to do through us now for the future. If we look back, we begin to see that His whole life seems to have been a history of coming and going. He came down from Heaven. He came to teach and preach to His Apostles through parables. He came to bring Divine power to men through wonders and miracles. Yet, He was always going from them also. He left His Mother and Step-Father to go back to the Temple in Jerusalem. He had gone away from His Apostles to fear for their lives in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee. He seemed to have gone away when Lazarus had died. He had gone away, in the end, to become His Father’s Sacrificial Lamb on the Tree of Calvary. And yet, in all of His coming and going He made some deep impression upon the souls of His followers, the seal and imprint of a Love that though going away in one way would come again with power in the hearts and souls of his faithful friends.
In today’s Gospel, we look back to the time when Jesus spoke to His friends explicitly about His coming and going. I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away. (St. John vi. 7) The Apostles did not grasp His meaning. Their ignorance was spawned from earthly expectations and human hopes. They were saddened because Jesus said that He would have to go away. They wanted Him to remain in the flesh forever. Peter, at one point, enjoying the mystical Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount, had wanted to make booths to preserve and mummify the glorified Christ with Elijah and Moses. Mary Magdalene wanted to embrace and cling to the Risen Christ. The Apostles had hoped that the Resurrected Christ might never leave them. What none of them understood was that Jesus came so that they could find lasting friendship with the Father through Him in Spirit and in Truth.
But the Apostles had been motivated by an urge for immature fleshly reassurance. Rather than being moved by the God that informed Jesus, they wanted the Christ who had come to them never to go away, treating Him like a kind-of idol. They wanted Him to remain with them as the one who would secure and shield them from all spiritual danger. But they had it all wrong. Like all of us, they remained stubbornly attached to the ephemeral nature of things rather than the permanent essence of the spiritual good. So, they were not ready for Christ to come alive in them in a more lasting sure and spiritual way.
But Christ’s coming and going are part and parcel of a patient process that will in the end yield fruit in the hearts of those who believe. In the days of His Resurrection the Apostles were being led through fear to wonder, through wonder to faith, and through faith to worship. (The Resurrection of Christ, p. 38) St. James tells us that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (St. James i. 17) The good and perfect gift that is coming down from the Father of Lights is Jesus Christ Himself. That divine gift that was made flesh and dwelt among us (John i. 14) is coming to reveal the Father’s will to all men. His coming in Resurrection reveals victory over sin, death, and Satan. His coming and then going from them in Ascension reveals true reconciliation with the Father that is only just beginning. Christ comes and Christ goes. He will come once again in Pentecostal fire as His Spirit molds and shapes His friends into members of the new Body that He is making. Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. (St. James i. 18) God [is] a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship [Him] in spirit and in truth. (St. John iv. 24)
So how do we allow this to happen? We must discover the Resurrection faith that stirred the Apostles. St. James speaks for all when he writes: Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls. (St. James i. 19, 20) In other words, in all humility of heart we are called to receive…the engrafted Word of God, Jesus Christ, who desires to come into us to save our souls. Jesus says, If I go away, I will send the Comforter unto you. (Ibid, 7) Christ goes away from us so that He might come to us through the Holy Ghost. Through the Holy Ghost, Christ the Word will come to us to be implanted in our souls. Through the same Spirit He will make us partakers of His Resurrection.
But to allow Christ to come to us in such a way that His Spirit will make us true members of His Resurrected Body is no easy affair. Think about the coming and going of so many in the Church. Think about how many people come to Church to go through the motions. Their coming and going seems to bear no witness to the God’s coming and going in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit at all! They come to church for fellowship and perhaps a little bit of religion. They go back into the world not much better for it. Or there are others whose coming and going resembles St. Peter’s immature relation to Jesus Christ. They are obsessed with mummifying and preserving their Christ by needing to be uplifted at all times by Transfiguration moments. And so their religion is all about the external form, the shell, the husk, or the outside of the spiritual cup in all of its safe pristine purity and respectable religion. Their religion is all form and no substance. They forget that the only brilliant moment in Christ’s life was the Transfiguration, and that the rest of it was occupied in the demon-possessed valley of human sinfulness. (My Utmost: O. Chambers) They forget that Christ’s coming and going was really all about a self-emptying, a laying down His life to do the will of His Father, that was meant to become the pattern and model for those of us who would become His friends.
Christ says today that, When the Spirit is come, He will reprove the world of sin. (John xvi. 8) Christ will come to us again through His Holy Ghost to shed light on the filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness that we are in danger of indulging when we are not receiving with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save [our] souls. (St. James i. 20) The Holy Ghost will come to convict us of our sins. The same Spirit will come to convict the world of righteousness. (John xvi. 10) He will come to show us that Christ’s righteousness has overcome all sin and will overcome ours also if we let Him.Finally, When the Spirit comes, He will convince the world of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John xvi. 11) Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to remind us that Christ has conquered Satan and will come to judge both the quick and the dead. The Holy Ghost comes to establish the Divine order and rule in our hearts. True friendship and communion with Jesus Christ is found when the Spirit, who binds Him to the Father, comes to guide us into all truth. (St. John xvi. 13)
Jesus Christ’s coming and going is of utmost importance for our ultimate destiny. Archbishop Ramsey summarizes neatly what happens when Christ’s coming and going began to rule and sway the hearts of those who are becoming His Apostles and Disciples. Dying to their own self-centeredness, the Christians enter a new life wherein the center is not themselves but the Risen Christ. No longer do they think of Christ only in terms of His existence in history as an isolated figure: for they think of Him as Risen, and Contemporary, and Embracing His people as a very part of His own life. (The Resurrection of Christ, p.94) Christ’s coming and going is all part of His desire to invite us into His Resurrection, here and now, and to embrace us with the love that will transform our lives.
Christ can generate His new life in us only by going from us in the flesh and coming to us again through the Holy Spirit. Do we long to become part of this Divine movement of Heavenly Love? We are just passing through this vale of tears and, in the Spirit of Christ, let us pray,
Love, lift me up upon thy golden wings
From this base world unto thy heavens hight,
Where I may see those admirable things
Which there thou workest by thy soveraine might,
Farre above feeble reach of earthly sight,
That I thereof an heavenly hymne may sing
Unto the God of Love, High Heavens King.
(Hymn of Heavenly Love: Edmund Spenser)
For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned
unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
(1 St. Peter ii. 25)
In Eastertide, we are called to become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body by embracing the forgiveness of sins in our lives. In so doing, we must acknowledge that the forgiveness of sins is really a two-edged sword meant to divide us from both sin and wickedness in our own lives, and also from sin in the lives of others. With regard to the first, we were bidden to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. With regard to the second, we were urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into forgiveness of all others, hope for their salvation, intercession from them, and then, of course, the usual acts of kindness, compassion, pity, and mercy that are second nature to the Christians who are grafted into the life of the Crucified One. Did I say the Crucified One? Of course. Our Resurrected, Ascended, Glorified Lord Jesus is nothing if the Father doesn’t see us through the Whole Glorified Christ, through His Wounded Hands, Feet, and Side.
So, I begin our sermon, with a dire warning that our return to God will be through Jesus Christ, the Crucified Wounded Healer. It will not be easy. This might strike many people with surprise since this is Good Shepherd Sunday. Most people think that Good Shepherd Sunday ought to be about Jesus the kindly caring, gentle herdsman of tender lambs. And while this might be true for Hallmark and the Mormons, in another way it reveals a superficial, half-baked, and even diabolical version of Jesus Christ.
Christ, the Crucified One is indeed the Good Shepherd but His goodness is offered to His sheep with conditions. As we become His sheep, the censorious and demanding character of Jesus the Good Shepherd will become clearer to us. What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects are illustrated in this morning’s First Epistle of St. Peter. St. Peter is describing unjust or unmerited suffering. He writes his letter to the newly formed churches in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. We don’t know the specifics of individual cases, but the general impression is that Christian slaves are having a hard time with the forgiveness of sins. Their particular struggle involves the mechanics of dealing with Masters who are punishing them unfairly and tyrannically. St. Peter is keen to identify with their pain and suffering since he thinks that if they consecrate it more faithfully to Jesus the Good Shepherd, they will abide in Christ more securely as they make their way to the Kingdom.
With specific reference to their perplexing dilemma, he says, Servants,
be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. (1 St. Peter ii. 18) If he were writing as an earthly-minded pagan man, whose notions of justice and equity are always measured but an earthly standard, we should judge his advice to be hard-hearted and full of cruel cold comfort. But St. Peter is not writing as an heathen and so his chief interest in not with social and political justice but with Divine and lasting spiritual liberty. He writes as a member of the Body of Christ, and so he continues, For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. (1 St. Peter ii. 21) St. Peter does not pretend in any way that such a spiritual response to earthly injustice and tyranny is easy. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, St. Peter remembers, too, how he followed in his Master’s footsteps, when Christ was led away to be crucified. (R.K.: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 125) He is only too conscious of the radical injustice done to his Master, Jesus Christ, and of his own fear-driven cowardice and powerlessness in the fact of it. When he had been sitting by the fire in the cellar of the High Priest’s palace, he was surrounded by slaves. Here were those who were chained to other men. Here was he who was shackled and enslaved to his own terror, pusillanimity, and impotence. He responded to evil by retreating into his own sin. The slaves who surrounded him were in chains because of other men’s evil. Peter was afraid of the same evil that bound the slaves. Yet, his slavery was self-imposed and voluntary, the just reward and punishment of his own betrayal. Peter had become a slave to a far more cruel master than any earthly slaveholder. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. And because he was guilty of denying Jesus before the cock had crowed, he feared judgment. He remembered that guile was… found in his mouth, that when reviled, he reviled…again, and that when he suffered the accusation that he was one of Jesus’ friends, he threatened his accusers. (Ibid)
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks as one who has received the forgiveness of sins made flesh in His Master, Jesus Christ. Christ has forgiven him who once was the slave of sin and now He calls him into the new life of the Resurrection. Now, Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters. Christ suffered for our sakes…who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who when reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously: who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (Ibid, 22- 25) St. Peter became a sinful slave to the evil of this world voluntarily. The slaves he addresses are the hapless victims of other men’s wickedness, and yet they are in danger of being possessed spiritually by the evil that oppresses them. Both Peter and earthly slaves are now invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection and life. The slaves are given a great opportunity not only to follow Christ themselves but also to prick the consciences of their masters, Christian or pagan, because they can become evangelists for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. What they can reveal is that they are the free sons and daughters of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all manner of wickedness because the evil of other men must never be an excuse for unfaithfulness and cowardice. True freedom lies in obedience to God and not to men.
This obedience to God requires that they forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) St. Peter is inviting the slaves to see that the Saviour has suffered unjustly and has borne the burden of all men’s slavery to sin on the Cross of His Love. Like Christ, they must forgive those who are the cause of their suffering.For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Where His indwelling presence is put to the test is when men suffer wrongfully and innocently. If He – the perfect model and example of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, can forgive, then so too must all they who would become members of His Resurrected Body. In fact, Jesus said, If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you…if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18, 20) For Christ bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness. (Ibid, 24) Again, with Monsignor Knox, Christ’s wounds are healing stripes, and His death produces, of its own efficacy, a new death and the beginning of new life in us. (Idem) So the slaves and the slaveholders are invited into the new life of the Resurrection, which demands that all sin should be overcome with love as forgiveness, faith, and hope. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25 The deepest impression of the Good Shepherd’s transformative love must be embraced by all kinds of sinners.
St. Peter shows us that all men are sinners who need to be incorporated into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. And this Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. He calls Himself the Good Shepherd in this morning’s Gospel, for He is the Shepherd of Souls who voluntarily becomes God’s Slave because, as He says, He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) So the Good Shepherd is the Slave who is employed wholly for the good of two Masters –His Father and His sheep! He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that His Father’s Spirit can become a true Slave to their condition, [in making] Him to become sin for us to break its chains through the perfect power of the the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus Christ is forever the Father’s willing Servant who longs to become our Slave even now through the Holy Spirit. He who is wholly subservient, obedient, and docile to the Father’s will knows that He must find and save us. He will become menially malleable to our spiritual welfare and good. He longs to be the Slave who alone shares the Spirit of His suffering death with all of us so that we might overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jesus goes where He is sent. Will we allow this Slave find us lost sheep? Most earthly slaves try to run away. This Slave searches us out. We must first allow this Slave to find us. Of course, we had better realize that this Slave finds us because He does what we cannot do for ourselves. We are, after all, lost sheep. Unless and until we know ourselves as lost sheep, Jesus Christ is of no use to us. This is the hardest part of Christianity for post-modern man. Supposedly free, post-modern man is the slave to his own overly confident and superficial understanding of Jesus Christ. He laid down His life for us in order to conquer sin, death, and Satan, supposed orthodox Christians proclaim ad nauseum. But will we allow this Slave must become our Master? If He is to become our Slave and Master, we shall see that He also is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) We become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life,becoming Slaves to others, loving our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints, only when His Spirit of Death has conquered sin, death, and Satan in us.
As my Father has sent me, so send I you. (St. John xx. 21)
You and I have just emerged from a rigorous Holy Week and Easter when we tried to walk with Jesus Christ through His Passion and into His Resurrection. I pray that we have striven to move from Death into New life. Now how do we move from Death into New Life? First, we meditated upon the external and visible events that comprised the last days of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were contemplated with a view to acquire a vision of Christ’s Victory over sin, death, and Satan. Second, those same events began to affect our inward and invisible natures, as His death became our Death, and His offer of Resurrection the seedbed of that New Life in Him that leads us to Heaven. Having confessed that I it was denied thee, I crucified thee (Ah Holy Jesus), I pray that our souls began to open to Christ’s response to us as the forgiveness of sins and His persistence in pursuing our salvation beyond the grave. I pray that we have begun to receive this Divine Love, which alone can make us into members of the Body of Christ and children of His Resurrection.
We must beware of treating Jesus of Nazareth like a dead hero or a mere remnant of history or one who said and did good things for His own generation but has been rendered irrelevant and obsolete in ours. G.K. Chesterton noted this tendency, even within the churches, when he said, Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you anymore. (The Everlasting Man) Imagine the sense of loss that every student has felt with the death of a great mentor. The student finds himself at a crossroads, for a stellar mind is gone and his voice is silenced. Chesterton continues: Imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. (Ibid) Think about what it would be like to have your favorite writer or thinker back from the dead to help you to interpret this mad, mad world that we inhabit.
Perhaps this is not unlike what the Apostles were thinking when they began to mourn Jesus’ death after the Crucifixion. Why, if only He were here, they must have thought. And yet when He was here, men were determined to ruin Him. Would it be any different? So they mused on the might-have-beens. Then they remembered that they too had abandoned, forsaken, denied, and betrayed Him. For now, they were assembled behind the doors for fear of the Jews, (St. John xx. 19) precisely because they feared what guilt by association might mean for them now. Yes, the Apostles were afraid, troubled in conscience, trembling at what the enemies of Jesus might be plotting. Their faith was weak, their hopes were confused, and even their desire for His return might have been half-hearted.
And then, despite themselves, their Beloved Master returns. Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He shewed them His hands and His side.(St. John xx. 20) Their Master and Mentor has returned, and as the scales begin to fall from their eyes slowly, they begin to recognize Him. The vision of their faith is weak and fragile but grows and strengthens. He shows them His hands and His side to confirm their faith in Him, that they might not have it by hearsay only, but might themselves be eyewitnesses of His being alive. (M. Henry) He comes to them alone and does not appear to the whole of mankind. He does not reveal Himself to His enemies and He does not reveal Himself to those who had no interest in God or the salvation He has promised to bring. As St. Peter will recall a bit later, Him God raised up the third day, and showed Him openly; not to all of the people, but unto witnesses chosen before God, even to us who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead. (Acts x. 40,41) An event of supernatural making presents itself to them. The Apostles are baffled, bewildered, perplexed, puzzled, and flummoxed. Those who fled the Cross wondered: Did He truly die? Perhaps, in the end, He was spared; we did not see with our own eyes. Others might have thought: This is an optical illusion. Perhaps He was never a true man and that even now He is nothing but a Spirit. And if it will take time to convert His Apostles, there is no small wonder that He did not appear to the chief priests and people.
For forty days Jesus will teach His friends about the great mystery of the New Life, the Vita Nuova. He will teach them about how His coming was prefigured in the Old Testament and that He is its fulfillment in the New. He will teach them about the nature of the New Life that He brings to them, and, most importantly, that the first principle of that life is the forgiveness of sins that He embodies. He will show them that without His suffering and death there could be no new life. For the new life that He brings into the world is perfect forgiveness that alone can overcome the grip of evil through love. His love will draw the new life out of them as His Holy Spirit enables them to be forgiven and to forgive. Suffering and death will begin to be consecrated as essential spiritual moments in the soul’s journey back to God. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you….If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18-20)
Peace be unto you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you; and He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive the Holy Ghost.(St. John xx. 21-23) The Word made flesh is with them, and He calls them into His Service once and for all. He breathes His Word into them and they begin to become living members of His Resurrected Body. He has laid down His life for them, and now He gives it back to them transfigured and glorified. These He restores, comforts, warns, and inspires. (Newman, Witnesses of Resurrection, 184) The onslaught of fear and the cloud of confusion recede into the past as He invites them into the New Life slowly and methodically, as their faith grows.
So, the Apostles begin to live the New Life. Christ is the vine and they the branches. As Chesterton says, What the Apostles were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener, God walked again in the garden, not in the cool of the evening, but at dawn. (The Everlasting Man) The Apostles’ mental unrest and uncertainty flee. The Master has returned as He had promised and is now teaching them how to live the New Life in the garden of a New Creation. Their faith in Him grows into New Life with new meaning, where Christ the Vine God holds, supports, nourishes, and strengthens the branches of His redemption.
In this joyful Eastertide, Jesus Christ calls us into the New Life. St. John tells us this morning, Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is He that overcometh the world, but He that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?(1 John v. 4,5) What the Apostles begin to see is that our faith in Jesus Christ yields the victory that overcomes the world. They see that This [Jesus is He] that came by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water and the blood.(1 John v. 6) The Spirit brings into our remembrance that Jesus came by water and blood. (Idem) Inwardly we are polluted and fallen and our flesh needs the healing waters of Holy Baptism. From the world, the flesh, and the devil we meet resistance in the ongoing journey to the Kingdom and thus must be nourished and fortified by the Blood of Christ. The Spirit has raised up the One who has come by water and blood. The Spirit has raised up the One who calls all from death into His New Life. The Spirit enlivens the One who will be the Vine that holds and nourishes us with water and blood. Through the waters of Baptism, His Spirit will grow branches that will bear fruit. The Spirit will cultivate and grow God’s Word in the soul with the vivifying blood that flowers and blossoms into the fruits of righteousness. The Blood of the Eucharist will drown sin in death and flood the branches with the New Life. Spirit, water, and blood will grow branches that will give God the Glory. His Spirit will animate a new Body- the Church, that tree of New Life whose branches reach into Heaven from the New Garden that Christ cultivates.
And yet none of this can happen without deepest faith in the Resurrected Jesus Christ Who, as we pray in our Easter Collect, by His rising to life again hath restored to us everlasting life. Solomon tells us that this process will be strange and painful. In the sight of the unwise [we shall] seem to die: and [our] departure [will be] taken for misery; and [our] going from [them] utter destruction….(Wisdom ii 2) But once they see what is happening to us, they will conclude that we are in Peace. Jesus says today, Peace be unto you…and He showed them His hands and His side. (St. John xix 19,20) From His side flowed water that cleanses and the blood that gives New Life. Christ is the Vine and we are the branches. We are given the New Life. Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. (Ibid, 21) Christ sends us, His branches to reach out and into the world.
Then we shall find Blessed Gueric of Igny’s words surprisingly true:
The man who enters Christ’s garden becomes a garden himself, his soul is like a watered garden, so that the Bridegroom says in praise of him: ‘My sister, My spouse is a garden enclosed’ (Cant 4, 12). Yield the fragrance of incense. Blossom like the lily, and smell sweet, and put forth leaves for your adornment. (The Garden of Delight)
ndeed, yield fragrance, blossom, shoot forth, from water and blood and reveal the Risen
Christ to the world!
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 2)
Our journey through the Lenten Season to Good Friday will have been of no use if it has not been characterized by affection. Set your affections on things above, proclaims St. Paul this morning, and not on things of the earth, and if we have been conscientious, this is exactly what we have been doing. Affection is passion, desire, yearning, and loving. And throughout the Holy Season of Lent, we have prayed that the Holy Spirit might purify the thoughts of our hearts so that we can follow Jesus up to Jerusalem and beyond. Our affections have been set…on the things above [and] not things of the earth, things which have come down to us in the passionate heart of Jesus Christ to lift us up higher. Out of the unquenchable ardor and fervor of His heart, Christ has desired that our affections might meet His in that Death that alone brings new spiritual life. Easter is all about the pure affection of God in Jesus Christ for the transformation of the cosmos and the transfiguration of all men.
In the course of our journey to Easter, we have learned that setting [our] affections on things that are above and not on the things of the earth is no easy business. And yet the distraction or diversion comes not from God but from us. God’s affection and desire for us have never ceased. From the Divine Depths, articulated and expressed in the incessant, loving Passion of Jesus, the uninterrupted longing of God for our salvation has persisted. The Word has gone out. God’s desire and affection have never dithered nor departed from His Great Unseen Eternal Design. The Word of God came down from heaven to live in man’s heart. His Good Friday is but one moment in the unfolding drama of our Redemption.
The common lot of men would have none of it. Their affections and desires were otherwise dominated. The mighty engine of Caesar’s Rome could not accommodate the strange Passion of a loving God whose affection is set high above man’s muddy reason. Even God’s chosen people, the Jews, could not imagine how such love and affection could be reconciled to their Law. The fear and the cowardice of those with the best of intentions were rendered equally powerless in the presence of God’s unfolding affection. Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth. (St. Luke xxi. 26) Human affection for God is fickle, unreliable, inconstant, and ultimately treacherous. Man’s fallenness cannot bear the Divine irruption.
And yet, God persists in the heart of Jesus with a love that seeks to draw the hearts of all, even His worst enemies. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) In this, Christ says, Come follow me. Today thou shalt be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) He is saying, Come follow me. Woman behold thy son…behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 26, 27) Come follow me. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) Come follow me. I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Father into thy hands, I commend my spirit. (St. Luke xxviii. 46) Come follow me even into my death, Christ insists. We begin to see His death as what alone can make us new. Our love grows and expands as sin is swallowed up into a Death that is strangely alive. Christ dies, and Man dies. Christ is coming alive, and so is Man. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22)
In pure affection, God made all things, and with the same affection He will remake all things. Christ brings primal Man into death. In the pure affection of self-willed exile, man had desired God’s death. God had given man his desire. As you wish, or As you like it. So, God in Christ endures and suffers our choice. God is dead. Christ is interred in the sepulcher, and with Him, it would seem, man’s affection for the things that are above is dead and buried. The affections that moved the human imagination to believe that Christ might be Messiah seem to have died.
Holy Saturday must seem to be an end for those whose hearts fail, for those whose affection and desire for God seem to have died in the Crucified One. There is darkness. There is the death of a Lovethat the world had never known. The affection for things above and beyond which He was, is gone. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. (Genesis i. 2) Darkness and death seem to have swallowed up the Love and extinguished the Light. Death holds hope hostage in the cruel constrictor-knot of confusion and fear.
But as we move from the seventh to the first day, something strange begins to happen. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis i. 3,4) In the beginning, God lovingly made the Light to inform, define, and enliven all of creation. In the same Light now, incandescent beams of Love will open the eyes of believers’ hearts to a new creation being illuminated by that true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into world. (St. John i. 9) Darkness flees, sin flees, death flees, and ignorance flees as the Loving Light jumps up from the heart of Jesus. The pure affection and eternal desire of the Father of lights have transformed the Son as flesh from Death into New Life. The old Man is Dead and the new Man has come alive.
At first only angels and nature sense the strangeness of this Light. The elements stir, the air is parted, the fire blazes, the earth shakes and removes all barriers to the rising Light that follows the passion and affection of its Mover. The Father’s immortal, immutable, and immovable course of affection for man’s redemption are on course and thus willingly embraced in the heart of Jesus. Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. (Romans vi. 9, 10) The question and answer of the prophet Ezekiel are fulfilled.
Son of man, can these bones live? …And there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, Son of Man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them…(Ezekiel xxxvii. 1-10)
Christ is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophesy. Yes, these bones can and will live. In Him the Light of God blends with rising Love in the transfigured flesh of Man. The pure affection of Man for God brings Light out of Darkness and Life out of Death. God’s Word rises up, informing still, the now transfigured flesh of Jesus. Christ’s uninterrupted affection for God and Man is one Light whose Lovemakes Death into something new. Christ is Risen from the dead…Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us…as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 20, 22; 1 Cor. v. 7)
But there is more. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me. (St. John xii. 32) At first, the affection of both the Apostles and the women seems dead. But then something of the old passion begins to stir within them. On this first day of the week, Mary Magdalene is moved out of the tomb of her soul to the place of Jesus’ burial. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live. (Ezekiel. xxxvii. 12-14) She is moved by what is still alive of her affection and love for Jesus. She finds the stone rolled away. Her affection and passion for the Light hasten into some strange new hope. They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. (St. John xx. 2) In the darkness, she thinks that Christ’s enemies have stolen the body. John and Peter affectionately and passionately run after this new truth. As Eriugena says, John outruns Peter because contemplation completely cleansed penetrates the inner secrets of the divine workings more rapidly than action still to be purified. John represents contemplation and hope. Peter represents action and faith. But faith must enter the tomb of darkness first and understanding follows and comes after. (Hom. Gospel of St. John, 283, 285)
God’s uninterrupted affection and desire for all men’s salvation is at work in time and space. Stirring within the hearts of Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John are the faith and understanding in the Light that said, I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. (St. John xiv. 18, 19) Christ is risen. Soon the Apostles will see Him and begin to Live in Him. Christ is risen. In the Resurrected Light that shines through His transfigured flesh, we must remember that we are dead and our life is hid with God in Christ. (Colossians iii. 2,3) In the Resurrected Light, let us reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) In the Resurrected Light let us match Christ’s affection with our own –that affection and desire for becoming very members incorporate in His Risen spiritual and mystical Body, transparent, obedient to His Holy Spirit…apt and natural instruments of His will and way, (The Meaning of Man, Mouroux, p.89) reflecting His Light and Love into the hearts of all others. And with the poet let us rejoice and sing:
Then comes He!
Whose mighty Light
Made His clothes be
Like Heav’n, all bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stained man more white than snow.
And none else can
Bring bone to bone,
And rebuild man,
And by His all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick than Light.
(Ascension Hymn: H. Vaughn)
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar,
and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had
received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head,
and gave up the ghost.
(St. John xix. 29,30)
Jesus the crucified, Jesus the suffering Servant and dying Lord of Good Friday, is betrayed by one, and then denied and abandoned by the others, including all of us. Sin betrays and forsakes God’s Word, denies His power, rule, and governance in human life, and abandons Him for the impermanent, temporary, and fleeting pleasures and gods of this world, as important as they might seem. So as we look back on this Good Friday, as Christians, it is our duty to identify with any sin that reveals no acquaintance or familiarity with Jesus Christ. We do this because we desire to repent. And we desire to repent because we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s forgiveness of sins made flesh. And we believe that this forgiveness of sins is fully, perfectly, and truly embodied and communicated through the death of God’s Son on the Tree of Calvary. We believe also that this forgiveness of sins calls us into death, the death of Jesus Christ, and then our own deaths. For if we will not die to sin through the forgiveness of sins, beginning here and now, we can never begin to come alive to God the Father through the Risen Christ on Easter Day.
But before we repent we must look into the nature of what Jesus Christ is doing for us when He dies on the Cross of Calvary. St. Paul tells us that by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Romans v. 12) By one man’s disobedience to God, sin and death came to define man’s relation to Him. And so from the time of Adam to Christ all men were oppressed, enslaved, overcome, and even overwhelmed by that power which prevents them from obeying God purely and perfectly. But because Jesus Christ becomes the forgiveness of sins, He takes on and into Himself sin and death and brings their reign and rule over human life to an end. Jesus [humbles] himself and is obedient [to God the Father] unto death, even death upon the Cross. (Phil. ii. 8) Thus, through His sacred humanity He brings man’s addiction to the world, the flesh, and the Devil to death. Through His Passion and Desire for God, He will overcome Original Sin. Through His enduring Love, He will suffer and withstand the worst and the best that man’s sin can do in order to bring it all to death, and out of it make something much better and new. Sin and death then may try to kill God’s Love in the humanity of Jesus, and they will indeed kill the Man. Behold the Man. (St. John xix. 5) They will taunt, tempt, mock, deride, torture and kill God’s Word made flesh. And they will bring the Man and His manhood to death. But what sin and death cannot kill is the Word of God’s Love in the heart of Jesus that persists and endures through suffering, into death, and then up into new life. For even while dying, Jesus’ forgiveness will begin to make and mold a new humanity, a new Manhood, a new Adam whose nature will be shared as the Body of new life for all who believe and follow.
So we come to the vision of Christ crucified. We come to see what sin tries to do to God in the flesh. And to our surprise and amazement we find the forgiveness of sins not as an obscure theological concept but as the life of God Himself in the dying Christ. For this forgiveness of sins is God’s uninterrupted desire for our salvation. And it is still alive and at work in the heart of the suffering and dying Christ. What do we hear emerging from the lips of the dying Jesus? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) Father, today they kill me through ignorance, confusion, weakness, and pain; forgive them, for tomorrow they may repent and believe and become our friends. And then we hear: Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) Look Father, this convicted thief dying alongside me has confessed his sin and desires to come and follow me. We have just now won the first new member of the Kingdom we are building. It’s death-bed conversion! And then what? Father, my Mother and dear John are here watching and waiting, dying to become a part my death and new life. Woman, behold thy son!.. Behold thy mother! (St. John xix. 26, 27) Father, already we have our first two missionaries, members of the new human family that I am making. My Mother is ready to become the mother of your new spiritual children. My friend, my spiritual brother is ready to become a new spiritual son to the Mother of redemption and salvation. But Jesus continues. Father I am suffering and dying, but they are suffering and dying with me. Strengthen them spiritually now, as I grow weaker and weaker, and my pain and agony grow stronger and stronger. For, Father, the Devil is once again on my back. My wounded and lacerated head, hands, and feet are overwhelming and crushing my sense and perception of the outside world that looks and gazes upon me. I am becoming blind, deaf, dumb, withered, and palsied like those I came to heal. I feel the pain of Job, and I hear the words of his wife: Curse God and die. (Job ii. 9) I feel the darkness, the silence, the stillness, even the nothingness enveloping me. Lord I am spent; is there any more for me to do? Father, you, even you, seem to be moving away from me. The deep and mysterious power of sin is attacking me. I sense and feel the nothingness not as that pure potential “about to be” that you and I once made real, but as a temptation to despair. I endure man’s rejection of thee my God. I sense the distance between thee and me. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) I know that you are here, but, ‘why…art thou so far from my health, and from the voice of my complaint? I cry in the day time but thou hearest not: and in [this] night season also I take no rest.’ (Ps. xxii. 1,2) I know that ‘thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.’ (Ps. li. 8) And so, I gasp for that spiritual drink that will satisfy my soul. ‘I thirst.’ (St. John xix. 28) Yes Lord, there is one more thing for me to do before ‘It is finished’ (Ibid, 30), before ‘I commend my spirit into thy hands.’ (St. Luke xxiii. 46) There is Roman soldier over there, I cannot see him clearly, but he has not moved throughout this my suffering death. He has not taken his eyes off of me. But he is not vengeful or wrathful. He has been looking into my eyes from the beginning. By his own judgment and understanding, he knows that something is terribly wrong but, perhaps, that we are about to make all things new and right. The seed of faith is growing in his heart. ‘Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.’(Idem, 29, 30) This Roman soldier, perhaps with another, gave Jesus his last sip of wine. Father, I thank you for giving me this drink through him. I thank you for moving him to provide me with the drink that is becoming his own offering of himself through you. Keep him near, my Mother and disciple will need his help in taking me down from this tree and burying me. And through them, let us welcome him into the Body of my Death, which is already becoming the Body of our new Life.
So today we come to the Cross to repent. We come to confess all of the ways in which we have denied, betrayed, and crucified Jesus Christ’s eternal Word of Love in our hearts. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace his ever-dying desire to heal, cure, redeem, sanctify, and save us. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace that same desire for all others, when we have criticized, judged, condemned, and failed to forgive those whom Jesus always loves and desires to bring into the Body of His Death and the substance of New Life. In the confession of our sins, we come to die to ourselves, the world, the flesh, and the devil. We come then to Christ’s crucifixion to remember our Baptismal vows and covenant. With St. Paul we remember this:
…That so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness ofHis resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans vi. 4-6)
Today we renew our commitment to die to sin, and this death is the first step towards the New Life we anticipate on Easter Sunday. As we die to sin today, let us now see that our sin is also buried with Christ. And with John Donne, let us ask for loving correction and discipline that only the Master can give, that we might turn from death and burial up and into the new life that Easter Sunday will bring.
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
(Good Friday: John Donne)
The point of our journey up to Jerusalem in this holy season of Lent is not only to see with spiritual eyes what the love of the Word [that] was made flesh and dwelt among us (St. John i. 14) does but also to hear the same Word. We go to Jerusalem to hear what the Word of God in the flesh has to say to spiritual sickness and disorder and then also to spiritual hardness of heart, obduracy, and ill will. What Jesus says or does not say is all-important for a true understanding of the salvation into which He is drawing all who will desire it. For when the ears of sinful men are opened to the Word of God, not only can they learn of His will but, also, they can desire the power of His love. The Word of God in the flesh is not only educational but spiritually sanctifying.
Our theme for this Sunday is spiritual hearing. Our understanding of it is found in this morning’s Miracle of the Dumb or Mute Man. Prior to the reading of this passage from St. Luke 's Gospel, the Apostles had been hearing Jesus’ discourse on petitioning God the Father in prayer. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (St. Luke xi. 9,10) Jesus insists that the Father longs to hear from us. Earthly fathers hear their children and care for them. If [they], being evil, know how to give good gifts unto [their] children: how much more shall [the] heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him? (Ibid, 13) And then on the heels of this, Jesus comes upon a dumb or mutant man. Here is a man who can neither hear, nor speak, nor ask. The dumb cannot speak in any rationally coherent way but can only laugh, cry, holler, and groan. If he had been suffering from this physical disability alone, his chief handicap would have been that physical deafness which prevents a man from uniting rationally with the world around him through speech.
But, what we find is that there is a more insidious reason or cause for this man’s inability to hear and to speak. He was possessed of a demon. Jesus was casting out a demon and it was dumb. (Ibid, 14) The real sickness that afflicted the deaf and dumb man was demonic possession. Otherwise, Jesus would have performed a bodily miracle only. But this man’s sickness was psychic and spiritual. Thus, Jesus expels a demon. He does this, no doubt, to teach His Apostles and us something about the nature of that evil which threatens both to possess and to overcome any man in this life. So, He will never treat the symptoms of spiritual disease and sickness alone, but will rather attack and overcome the source and origin of the evil. This man can neither hear nor speak because the devil has possessed him. The devil divides men from God and men from other men. His spiritual aims are as present to our world as to that of the New Testament. Thus, what we must desire from Jesus is that Divine power which alone can overcome and banish those demons, which threaten to ruin our spiritual lives by leading us to despair of communion with God. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake. (Ibid, 14)
Yet, receiving the healing of one demon is never enough. We read that when the deaf mutant was healed, He spake. (Idem) And yet what did he say? Nothing. No sooner has one demon been banished from the life of the healed man who desires to speak –to thank Jesus and to ask questions about how he should now live the new life that had been given to him, than other demons worse than the first drown out his questions with a barrage of verbal attacks on Jesus. Where are they, you might ask? They are in the hearts and souls of those who attack Jesus for the miracle he performed on the deaf mutant. But unlike the demon that possessed the deaf and mute man, these demons are concealed. They are so hidden within the souls of the malevolent attackers that they don’t even know what they are saying. The demons have so effectively inured and acclimated these men to sin that they don 't even recognize that they are possessed! These men believe that they are religiously related to the world around them through their piety and good works, and yet while they might lead moral and upright lives externally and visibly, their hearts are far from God.
So, once Jesus has healed the demon-possessed deaf and dumb, the people wondered. But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. (Ibid, 14-16) See how far wickedness has advanced in the lives of these men! One miracle is not enough. They need proof that he is not demon-driven. Jesus responds to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? (Ibid, 17,18) Jesus makes it clear that the devil has no part in his healing of the deaf and the dumb. He wishes rather to divide the man from God in Jesus. On all levels, the devil is determined to bring men to despair of all spiritual healing, sanctification, and salvation. Satan cannot endure the man’s entry into the world of words through the Word of God made flesh. He cannot stand the love that moves Jesus the Word. Jesus’ love brings men to the good healing that God intends for all. And Satan is enraged.
Jesus continues. If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (Ibid, 19, 20) Romano Guardini tells us that Jesus replies: Don’t you see how I war against Satan? How can you say that he works through me, which is the same as saying that we join forces to found one kingdom? (The Lord, Regnery, p. 119) Those who attack God’s healing power are Satan’s demonic friends who frantically attempt to set up a kingdom of appearances and disorder. (Ibid, 117) [Jesus’ enemies] have blashphemed against the Holy Ghost [by turning] against the heart of God; Jesus is saturated with the essence of God. To accuse Him of working through the power of Satan, is to touch the absolute in ill will. (The Lord, Regnery, 120) These men are possessed and dare to accuse the Absolute in Jesus of malevolence and ill will. Their malice, jealousy, and hatred cannot bear to endure the spiritual goodness, health, and healing that Jesus the Word brings into the world. Jesus proclaims that He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. (Ibid, 23) Satan is not divided against himself. His one aim is to divide man from God and God from man.
The deaf and mute who is now able to speak is silent and, no doubt, curious about what his healing has provoked. He might be tempted to receive the miracle humbly as an expression of God’s love or suspiciously as an act of Satan’s mischief. The deaf and mute man has entered into the dangerous world of words. Look and listen to what he sees and hears! He does not see men who are awe-inspired in the presence of a miracle. He does not hear the silence of those who are now mute themselves because God’s strong man is lovingly speaking healing in the earth. Rather, he sees and hears men who cannot be touched by God’s love in the heart of Jesus Christ. Jesus anticipates their impulsive rejection of His love. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (Ibid, 24-26) Many men are liberated from unclean spirits but forget that God’s Grace alone has inaugurated their healing. Because they have been overcome by God's Strong Man and deprived of the armour [of their own good works] in which they trusted, their souls are in danger of greater demonic possession. St. Cyril says that the devil finds their hearts empty, and void of all concern for the things of God, and wholly taken up with the flesh, and so he takes up his abode in them…[So their] last state is worse than the first. (Cyril: PG 72, col. 699.) Jesus reminds us that He that is not with me is against me. (Ibid, 23) Healing is spiritual and must be received and grown from Jesus in thankful hearts that long for ultimate reconciliation with God.
Jesus calls the healed mutant forth into a promising future with God. Yea, rather, Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28) Hearing the Word of God in Jesus Christ is all about a relationship. Hearing the Word of God means thankfully receiving God’s healing Grace and allowing it to grow in strength and power in the soul. In Jesus, we hear of His intention to take the armour in which we have too often trusted and to scatter the spoils. (Ibid, 22) Jesus is the strong man who will establish His love in us and banish the devil. We need to ask for His ongoing healing. For, as Calvin says, Let us not then suppose that the devil has been vanquished by a single combat, because he has once gone out of us. On the contrary, let us remember that…he has knowledge…of all the approaches by which he may reach us; and that, if there be no open and direct entrance, he has dexterity enough to creep in by small holes or winding crevices. (Calvin’s Comm’s; Vol. xvii)
Today, let us hear the Word of God in Jesus Christ who longs to break the power of all demons who would divide us from God. Then we shall remember that we are weak but Christ is strong. And if we shut our mouths for long enough and ask for His healing power, His strong love will vanquish and overcome all of our demons. Amen.
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth
distress of nations, with perplexity…(St. Luke xxi. 25)
Advent is that season which is all about preparing for Christ’s coming. What is coming to us is what endures forever and never passes away. With eager expectation, we await the one permanent and eternal thing that is all-important and all-defining for the life of any Christian. In the cyclical life of the Church, once again we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas time. Christ Jesus is the permanent Word of God made flesh. He is the eternally-begotten Word of God –that abiding, immutable, and enduring speech of God that was uttered and spoken into time and space long ago. And the same Word is spoken each year, in a new and fresh way, to the souls of the faithful that they might be born again of a wisdom and love that never pass away. Advent is about the coming of Christ the Word. Today we are called to hear the Word that comes to us, to measure our every desire by it, and to ensure that this Word is indeed our enduring hope.
In the Gospel appointed for today, Jesus establishes Himself as the Word spoken and offered to those who will hear Him. He speaks to the Apostles in the present tense of past history, and He speaks to us in the same way today. He speaks though of a future coming, a final coming, when all things shall be measured and summed up in relation to man’s hearing or not hearing His Word. The Word of God, His rule and governance, will be established finally and definitively in that day when He shall weigh the desire of men’s hearts definitively. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (St. Luke 21. 27) Jesus who is the disclosed and revealed Word of God made flesh, who spoke to the Apostles long ago, who speaks to us today, will come at the ednd of all time, to judge the world, to determine whether every man’s words and works are consistent, commensurate, and compatible with His will. In the end times then, all things shall be summed up in relation to the Christ the everlasting Word of God, and all men shall find their everlasting abode in Him.
So, it is in this life that we are blessed with the gift of preparing for God’s Judgment. This is the time of discovering what God intends for us all and habituating or acclimating ourselves to it. In the Gospel, Jesus fully expects that His hearers- the Apostles then and us now, will be in communion with Him already because they have long since begun to subject their desires to His Judgment and Will. Jesus says today that those who reject Him as God’s Word made flesh and articulated Will of the Father can expect only confusion, bewilderment, and unending terror. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (St. Luke xxi. 25) Heaven will herald in the time of Judgment and the earth will respond in kind with a traumatic and paranormal seismic shift that anticipates heavenly salvation for the good and damnation for the evil.
The unfaithful earthly-minded man will see at last that his perishable riches are now worthless, his worldly comforts surprisingly incommodious, and his natural peace violently inimical. At the same time, the faithful heavenly-minded man will set his eyes and heart upon the coming Glory that is already harvesting and ingathering the fruits of his holiness. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh, Jesus says. (St. Luke 21. 28) Though the creation’s mostly idolatrous inhabitants will be taken by surprise, the faithful friends of Jesus shall be neither blindsided nor astonished. With joy and rapture, they shall begin to be swept up in their unfolding destiny because they have long since been judged, corrected, disciplined, and redeemed by the permanent and unchanging Word of Christ’s love. Their spiritual state is illustrated neatly in the Parable of the Fig Tree. Jesus says, Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise, ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. (St. Luke 21: 30, 31) The faithful man shall see the world scorched in ruin, as unbelievers desperately and hopelessly scramble for cover because they have refused to prepare for the triumphant victory of God’s enduring Word. He shall see that the worship of earthly mammon has led only to sterility and impotence cutting off idolaters from the undeterred triumph of God’s love. He shall discover that the words of this world only ever come and go and always pass away because they have no root in God’s Eternal Word. He shall see that man’s possession by lesser gods can never yield any lasting and enduring joy. He shall know that the Word of the Lord alone endureth forever. And so, in the high summer heat of the Word’s return, the bright and burning truth of God’s Word of love shall bring those to life who alone can withstand the heat as what enables them to flower and fruit. With His coming, Jesus says, rejoice and be exceeding glad, for the world will be destroyed, but the dynamically penetrating heat of God’s loving Word shall summon the fruits of His Spirit into final and unbreakable unity with Himself. The Word made flesh will come to establish man’s final redemption either in deliverance to His Kingdom or separation from it.
But how, you might ask, does this Word of God judge us now? How, you ask, do we apply this Word of God to our lives now so that at the Judgment we shall be found so faithful to it so that we shall not be judged unworthy of salvation? Our Collect for today helps us. It exhorts us to a faith that seeks understanding and then generates hope in God’s unchanging Word, that never passes away.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Word of God, His communicated Wisdom to us and for us, most fully expressed and perceived in the life of Jesus Christ, is found through a diligent and persistent hearing and reading of Holy Scripture. The same Word must be studied, annotated, learned and understood, and then inwardly and spiritually digested as what alone can enable us to die to sin and come alive to God’s enduring righteousness. We must find in the Word a record of God’s persistent, unalterable, and enduring love for us and our salvation. We must discover that Jesus Christ, God’s Word made Flesh, has, in these last days, become not only the forgiveness of our sins but our resurrection and life, neither of which ever pass away.
The Collect teaches us that if we are to be found faithful, by patience and comfort of God’s Holy Word, we must embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life in Jesus Christ. Hope in eternal life must be the object of our desire. Earthly-minded man hopes for things that perish and puts his faith and trust in earthly relationships that grow old and pass away. Earthly man grows old and when life grows short, his hope grows weary, as Joseph Pieper writes. But spiritual man grows young because he hopes in a life that is ‘not yet’ and shall be as long as eternity. (Faith, Hope, Love, II, 110-111) Spiritual man hopes in a life that is just now starting to be lived in and through God’s Word. Spiritual man hopes in the Word that even now begins to prepare him for perfect everlasting union and communion with God. He has the audacity and courage to hope supernaturally above and beyond this transitory world with its fleeting promises. The theological virtue of hope bestows upon the spiritual man a certain possession of an aspiration that is at once relaxed and disciplined, adaptable and ready with strong-hearted freshness and resilient joy, with a steady perseverance in trust that distinguishes the young and make them so lovable. (Idem) Spiritual man is forever young because he trusts, even recklessly, in a love that makes him forever new. He is forever being made new with ever-growing confidence that what he knows and how he lives can always be bettered by being perfectly possessed and moved by a love that never passes away. Spiritual man is forever young because he does not look backward but forward. His youthfulness lives from a root that penetrates into an area of human nature that the powers of natural hope are unable to reach. This is so because supernatural youthfulness emanates from participation in the life of God, who is closer and more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. (Idem) For spiritual man time is swallowed up into eternity because he hopes forever in the fountain of youth that flows from God’s loving heart into his own! (Faith, Hope, and Love: Chapter II, 110-111)
In this holy season of Advent, we are called to be transformed by the unchanging and enduring Word of God’s love in Jesus Christ that will reward our hope with a love that is forever new and never passes away. So then:
[So] chiefly [we] should lift your gaze
Above the world’s uncertain haze,
And look with calm unwavering eye
On the bright fields beyond the sky,
Ye, who your Lord’s commission bear,
His way of mercy to prepare:
Angels He calls ye: be your strife
To lead on earth an Angel’s life.
Think not of rest; though dreams be sweet,
Start up, and ply your heaven-ward feet.
Is not God’s oath upon your head,
Ne’er to sink back on slothful bed,
Never again your loins untie,
Nor let your torches waste and die,
Till, when the shadows thickest fall,
Ye hear your Master’s midnight call?
(J. Keble: Advent II)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons