Graft in our hearts the love of Thy Name, increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness, and keep us in the same…
(Collect Trinity VII)
You must have noticed that in addition to our Scriptural lessons appointed to be read each Sunday we read or pray something called a Collect. A Collect is a short general prayer of a particular structure used in Christian liturgy. (Wikip…) In the tradition of Common Prayer the Collect gathers or sums up into one prayer the theme of the day or the focus of any given particular Sunday’s readings. You will have noticed that our Collects are poetically worded and beautifully crafted expressions of theological truth. Yet there is always a danger in them. One might be so swept up with the form that one forgets the substance. Their melodious meter might so sweep up our aesthetical appreciation that we never end up considering the theological truths that they encourage. We might liken it to the harmony of a song that possesses us without ever eliciting our reflection on its content. Countless numbers of people have enjoyed certain songs or choruses, only to realize that, on closer examination, the ideas they encourage are positively evil. We love the music, the sound, the beat, the combination of notes, and yet, if we examine the meaning, we find that the song encourages sin.
But our Collects were formulated to do exactly the opposite. Their beautiful forms were crafted to lead a man into the truth. And from there they were meant to lift the soul up and into the powerful presence of God. Listen, again, to the opening words of this morning’s Collect: Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things.... The words flow so beautifully that they are music to our ears. And yet what are they arranged to do? They lead and guide our minds into the truth about God. He is the Creator and Provider of all good things. He is the author of all primal and original goodness and is the giver of that added and supplemental goodness that yields salvation. So He makes all things and because they are made by Him they are good. He offers to redeem certain things also, namely the hearts and souls of one part of creation that has rejected His goodness and preferred their own. The goodness He desires to effect for men is the redemption of their fallen natures. So beyond the goodness that He creates, is a goodness that will conquer, subdue, and overcome man’s rejection of it. His added goodness promises to carry us out of bondage to the elements of this world (Gal. iv. 3), which, St. Paul reminds us, has come about as the result of the Fall. His added goodness is offered to us so that we might conquer evil.
So God’s power and might were present in the creation and are present to us now in redemption. His unchanging desire and intention for us is to continue to make all things good. Having claimed and confessed that His power and might alone make all things good, right, and true, we pray that what God intends we might embrace through love or an act of responsive will. Graft in our hearts the love of Thy name. God does not force or compel us to love Him. We must desire and long that God’s power and might might create and make new and loving hearts in us. Thus we long to be infused with a love for Him that excels and surpasses all other loves –the loves that tempt and distract us from the source and origin of our true and lasting joy. We yearn for that love that opens our hearts and souls to the power and might of God’s Grace. Acknowledging that this power and might alone can generate goodness in us, we see that its first effect must be love. We know that goodness for man is salvation and reconciliation with the same God. We know too that we cannot have it unless we love and will it from the ground of our hearts.
And yet we cannot end here. We know that our love for God must never be a fly-by-night, temporary, occasional, and impermanent feeling or emotion. So we pray, Increase in us true religion. True religion is the flower and fruit of that instinct, passion, and desire for the rule and governance of God’s goodness in our own lives. Without the Spirit of Divine Love, we shall never become accustomed or habituated to the virtues of truth that are the only means to our salvation. William Law tells us that the Spirit of Love is not in you till it is the spirit of your life, till you live freely, willingly, and universally according to it. (The Spirit of Love) The Spirit of Love must be translated into the spirit of our lives with the increase of true religion. True religion is a reflection and imitation of God’s holiness and righteousness – of His goodness, truth, and beauty. St. Paul tells us in this morning’s Epistle that when [we] were the servants of sin, [we] were free from righteousness. (Romans vi. 20) What he means is that before we came to our spiritual senses, we were in bondage or slavery to the elements of this world. And because of that, we were headed for sin’s reward –spiritual death, to be ultimately bereft of God’s enduring good things. But now, he says, we are being made freed from sin, [and are becoming] the servants of God.( Ibid, 22) Our Collect for today echoes Paul’s desire and hope for his flock. Increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness…. If we are defined by true religion we must be fed and nourished with God’s goodness, [having our] fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. (Ibid, 22) So desire for the love of God in our hearts moves us to find that true religion that conforms to the pursuit of salvation. What we are praying for really then is love of God that leads to godly discipline. Through discipline we find liberation from bondage to all that is unclean, unholy, and unrighteous. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ibid, 23) If the love of God is to be ordered in us as true religion, God’s goodness must nourish our hearts in the victory over evil.
So, at the end of our Collect we pray that God of his great mercy might keep us in the same. But, perhaps it is here that we come finally to the hardest part of the whole Collect for this Seventh Sunday after Trinity. We pray that God’s holiness and righteousness might become permanent fixtures of our knowing and willing. And this leads us to our Gospel for today. In it we read of God’s ongoing response to man’s desire for Him. In Jesus Christ, we find the one who is with us and for us every step of the way in this difficult endeavor. Just as Jesus had compassion on the multitude then, so He continues to have compassion on us now. Then He fed a multitude of four thousand men with seven loaves and two small fishes. (St. Mark viii) We read that he had compassion upon them because they had a desire for the kind of life that our Collect encourages. He has mercy always upon those who follow Him first and foremost, for a long duration, and from afar. The multitude has now been with me three days, and if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way; for divers of them came from afar. (St. Mark viii. 2,3) Jesus will meet the needs of those who follow Him faithfully. At that time, He took a small amount of food and multiplied it so that it could feed a multitude of people. Jesus is one with the Father. He is the Lord of all power and might and is the author and giver of all good things. Through His compassionate love, He begins to graft in [the multitude’s] heart the love of [God’s] name. They have put God’s message first. Also, they desire to increase in true religion since they have come long distances and now remain with Him for three days. Now He will nourish [them] with all goodness as a reward for their faithfulness and thus keep those who are faithful in the same.
Jesus will answer our prayers today also. What we pray for in our Collect, Jesus provides. He knows that we grow weary and faint as we journey after salvation. He knows that we struggle to leave far behind our servitude and slavery to sin and the elements of this world. He understands that our feeble powerlessness always threatens to overwhelm and possess us. He understands even that the music and beauty of our Collect might not be enough to increase in us true religion. So, He responds to us. Even today, He takes a few morsels of bread and a small portion of wine and makes them into His Body and His Blood. In receiving the miracle of Christ’s Real Presence with us and for us, we are welcomed into the summation of all good things. In and through them, because He is the author and giver of all good things, what He says they are, they must become for us.
And how is that? In the Eucharist, we must believe that Christ offers us nothing short of Himself. In it, He offers to us the substance of His sacrificial love. In our frail souls, we must understand that when we pray, Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, we are praying for the indwelling of Jesus Christ. This indwelling is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ who desires to heal us through His love. Graft, as Christ the Surgeon grafts His perfect flesh onto our frail sickly selves so that we might learn with Him to love God’s holy name once again. T. S. Eliot provides us with the image:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. (The Four Quartets: East Coker, IV)
Christ grafts in our hearts His love of God’s Holy Name. Such love has bled for us in His death and lifts us into the healing balm of His Resurrection. This is true religion. True religion feeds on all manner of His goodness. Christ the Surgeon enters into our sinful sickness with His Divine remedy. The sharp compassion of the healer’s art is summed up in the beautiful music of today’s Collect. Here, God’s Holy Word lovingly welcomes us into the song of salvation.
William Law: The Spirit of Love
[Love-2.1-9] Theophilus. ‘Tis true, Theogenes, that God can only then begin to make known his Mercy and Patience, when the Creature has lost its Rectitude and Happiness, yet nothing then begins to be in God or to be found in him, but that which was always in him in the same infinite State, viz., a Will to all Goodness, and which can will nothing else.
God’s Goodness is a Name which we give to His Nature. His Nature is Pure Goodness. Or we might say that God is Good by Nature. At any rate, His Goodness is apprehended by us men according to our spiritual nature and condition. Our spiritual nature and condition is to live as always tormented and distracted by sin. One aspect of our fallen nature is to have lost our original Rectitude and Happiness. If such is the case, then God’s Goodness will be apprehended and perceived by us as Mercy and Patience. His Goodness endures our ongoing struggles with sin, our falling into it, His lifting of us out of it, and our falling back into it again. Such Goodness is longsuffering and steadfast Patience. His Goodness is also always ready to receive us and to cleanse us anew. This Goodness is kind and loving Mercy. Thus, Goodness is perceived, apprehended, felt, and embraced as Mercy and Patience.
And his Patience and Mercy, which could not show forth themselves till Nature and Creature had brought forth Misery, were not new Tempers, or the Beginning of some new Disposition that was not in God before, but only new and occasional Manifestations of that boundless eternal Will to all Goodness, which always was in God in the same Height and Depth. The Will to all Goodness, which is God himself, began to display itself in a new Way when it first gave Birth to Creatures. The same Will to all Goodness began to manifest itself in another new Way, when it became Patience and Compassion toward fallen Creatures. But neither of these Ways are the Beginning of any new Tempers or Qualities in God, but only new and occasional Manifestations of that true eternal Will to all Goodness, which always was, and always will be, in the same Fullness of Infinity in God.
One Goodness of God is forever the same. That same Goodness is perceived, apprehended, felt, and embraced in one way before our Fall into Sin. It is experienced in another way after our Fall. What is one and the same with God is manifested and revealed as something different with creatures. Creatures are always subject to change. The great movement from righteousness into sin greatly changes the creature’s apprehension of God’s unchanging Goodness. God’s Will to Goodness before the Fall is sensed as the Illumination of Wisdom and the Passion of Love. God’s Will to Goodness after the Fall is felt as unmerited Patience and undeserved Compassion. To feel the power of the Patience and the Compassion the creature must sense his own self-willed departure from God’s Will to Goodness.
[Love-2.1-10] But to suppose that when the Creature has abused its Power, lost its Happiness and plunged itself into a Misery, out of which it cannot deliver itself, to suppose that then there begins to be something in the holy Deity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that is not of the Nature and Essence of God, and which was not there before, viz., a Wrath, and Fury, and vindictive Vengeance, breaking out in Storms of Rage and Resentment because the poor Creature has brought Misery upon itself, is an Impiety and Absurdity that cannot be enough abhorred. For nothing can be in God, but that which He is and has from Himself, and therefore no Wrath can be in the Deity itself, unless God was in Himself, before all Nature, and from all Eternity, an Infinity of Wrath.
God does not change. He is forever the Same, One God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. When we perceive God as full of Wrath and Fury and Vengeance, we sense most forcefully God’s Love, Passion, and Longing for us as what we have denied, abandoned, and forsaken. We sense the difference because we have made ourselves different and other than God’s own sons and daughters. To feel the Wrath, Fury, and Vengeance ought to stir and awaken us into a returning to God, whose Love for us is unabated, uninterrupted, and undeterred. God’s Love, Passion, and Longing for us ought not always to be sensed in their contraries. Love as Wrath still desires us. Let us return to Love. Passion as Fury still yearns for us. Let us pursue the Passion. Longing as Vengeance would correct and discipline us for a better future. For whom the Lord loves He chastens.
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 God’s intention and plan for us. We don’t seem to be planning and preparing for a future with God in Heaven. Or if we do, it is of secondary importance to this life. We are so possessed by this dimension, this time and space, and those who people it. We do not tend to study and ponder our eternal future. Jesus is quite clear about it. It will happen. And we had better be preparing to be with Him in Heaven and not separated from Him in Hell. So ponder God’s promises and His bestowal of them upon us we must, for truly this will condition and qualify our eternal future. God has given himself to us, and if we hope to find life with Him in His Heaven forever, we must prepare for it. Eternity, after all, goes on forever.
Yet, as usual, this seems to be most difficult. How do we become those upon whom God will, in the end, shower His promises? It seems beyond our reach; indeed it seems beyond all that we can desire, as our Collect for this morning reminds us. But being beyond all that we can desire is no reason to stop wanting it. Desire is an inward stirring and passion for an object that we do not yet have. What is beyond all that we can desire means simply what exceeds and surpasses our deepest knowledge and yearning. 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 now will then be wholly perfect because there and then it can never be threatened, challenged, disrupted, or distracted. It will be a love that cannot be destroyed.
So 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, St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle plots out the way to best receive and reflect this very love. Yet what a strange way he seems to encourage for its acquisition! To embrace God’s living love in our lives, the Apostle would have us consider death. In fact, he seems quite insistent that we shall never receive the promises that exceed all that we can desire until we die. What is St. Paul talking about? When most people hear about death, their minds travel to one thing – that is, to the extinction and termination of physical existence. But there is another death that Christians speak about and that is spiritual death. Most people imagine death as non-existence, a state in which man’s physical nature is shut down and all consciousness is lost. And because of this, they are full of fear and anxiety. 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 death is the necessary precondition to that new life that begins to have a foretaste of the promises of God. And 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. Also, he must examine closely the triggers and catalysts that lead to them. At first it may seem overwhelming, and yet, in the end, it will not be fearful because Christians believe that the most difficult aspects of this death have been endured and suffered already by Another on our behalf. 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. Christ has taken on our sin and in His one and all effective death has brought it to an end. We believe that the spiritual death to sin, Satan, death itself, and its power 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 revealed 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 and manifests love as death, death to the self, death to all that is other than God. This living love, this dying death in Jesus Christ is truly the first and necessary opening to the kingdom of God. All men are invited into the reality of it 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. The devil is not thwarted by the Sacrament of Baptism. And the hard work of redemption continues long after it is first administered to the believer. 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 is meant to be lived out as conscious death and new life. St. Paul certainly speaks of future Resurrection when Christ shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. But in order to be counted worthy of salvation then, we must be dying constantly to sin now. This means that we must realize and know that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, 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), the determination to confess them, and turning to God…our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Dying to ourselves involves hard work.
This is why 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 frustrate 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) If we envy, resent, or hate anyone from the ground of our hearts, then the love of God that was planted in us at Baptism has neither survived nor grown. Jesus – God’s love for us and all others, is, then, not alive. If we limit and kill that love for others, that love is as good as dead in us, and we are alive to sin and destined for a far more pernicious future death! If we limit and kill God’s love, 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 longing and desiring for our salvation. That kind of love should stir us to a deeper longing for union with Him. Christ was dying and hoping for our salvation; we must be dying and hoping for our salvation and the salvation of all others. This is the love that stoops down from heaven to call all human beings into friendship with God. This is the love that never stops giving itself to us as the way and means to our eternal communion with our Maker. Jean Mouroux reminds us that God is present to His creature not simply in virtue of the being He bestows on it, but also 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).
This same love invites and calls all men to be the saints of God. And as 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) It is only by the penetrating love of God in Jesus Christ that we can be saved and find the fulfillment of God’s promises in Heaven. The existence of Christ is the desire of God for man. The existence of Christ is the desire of man for God. In one person, Jesus Christ, we find true life, true vision and true love. So, then, dear friends, today let us realize that he has prepared for [us] who love Him such good things as pass man’s understanding, and that we cannot appreciate, value, cherish, and treasure this love until He pours into our hearts such love towards [Him], that we loving Him above all things may obtain His promises which exceed all that we can desire.
…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 goodness.
Prior to this morning’s Gospel Lesson from St. Luke, Jesus had been thrown out of His home town of Nazareth, barely escaping with His life. No prophet finds acceptance in his own country. (St. Luke iv. 24). And so He travelled 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 to address us from a place of unique separation.
But notice also that here though there are some who are on shore and therefore separated from Jesus, there are a few others who will be involved in not only hearing the truth of God’s Word but experiencing its 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. So 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 are caught 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. First, there is the preaching that is heard by both the Apostles at sea and the people on land. Here we find a spiritual curiosity and openness that will consider what Jesus Christ has to say.
Next come 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, and no doubt licking their wounds, 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. So 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 did not quit but would follow Christ for the reviving of their souls. Christ knows their weakness, allows even for Peter’s doubts, and yet out of it all will draw out their 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 burden of the bounty whose largesse 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 in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is so conscious of the radical otherness of God’s power that he can only feel the distance between himself and his Lord. Knowledge and understanding comprise one activity but to be caught up in the goodness that God’s Word generates is quite another. Peter’s unworthiness separates him from the power of God in Jesus. He knows that he is wholly 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 unworthy sinner in need of all that Jesus can do for him.
You see, the first step towards a right relationship with God is the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of wisdom, as a man 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 their former manner of life in the sea. Peter, on the other hand, falls down and experiences a spiritual death that he cannot resist. He finds himself a worthless and useless sinner 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 any more 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 become fishers of men. But not before they have begun to be moved and defined by the power of God in Christ the Great Fisherman. What they must experience is the power of God’s Word and the presence of His goodness to redeem and transform their natures for the service of His Kingdom.
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. This forsaking all is a spiritual disposition that industriously and zealously puts Jesus first, hears Him, obeys Him, and follows Him into the real work of God’s goodness. Forsaking all means death to themselves and coming alive to God’s goodness in all our thinking, acting, and doing. To benefit from what Jesus has to give, we must press upon Jesus to hear the Word of God. (Idem) In addition, we must leave our earthly occupations and their limited worldly success behind as we thrust out a little from the land. (Idem) In other words, we must begin to distance ourselves from the world. Next, we must launch into the deep with Jesus and cast our nets out for a draught. It might seem daunting but this fear of the Lord alone can sink our ship so that we might be caught up in the power 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. The power of God’s goodness overwhelms, overtakes, and overcomes fallen men. Are we ready to be caught up in Christ’s net and to become His fish out of water?
Man comes to be as he comes to know. Coming to know is part and parcel of becoming a true human being. Coming into knowledge, therefore, is in need of the same cause as coming into being. This salient feature of created human nature is ignored by most pseudo-scientists and pseudo-philosophers. They are pseudo because they will not admit of the need for God the First Cause in their acquisition of knowledge. Evidently, they believe that there exists no Being who Knows. But if there is no being who knows, then there is no knowledge for becoming beings who are becoming knowers! Being is participated in by beings who begin to be. Beings who begin to be eventually come to ponder, wonder, study, explore, and investigate because all men by nature desire to know. Their end is to know what can be known and is indeed known by the One Being who makes them. His making them involves His Eternal Knowing. When He makes them He knows what He is doing and what He is making. Man strives to understand what is already made as becoming being. Man strives to know things as God knows them. If God doesn’t exist, they cannot be known. Partial becoming knowing depends upon the Knower and the known. What is waiting to be known can be known only by discovering the knowledge of God the Knower who make, sustains, and thus defines them. So God is not just Being but Knowing. Another way of putting it is that God is Mind.
The author of Genesis is familiar with other ancient accounts of creation. He rejects them as not having solved his problem. His problem is that He wants to come to know the creation. He knows that it must be derivative. Becoming being, moving and changing being, being that is in time, for a time, and only for a time confronts him only with a kind of end and not a beginning. He is in search of beginnings. Of course, so were the other ancient cultures. But here there is a difference. A careful study of Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation account, might have been known to our author. If so, it is unsatisfactory. It seems to begin with divine division and multiplicity. It begins also with cosmic conflict and warfare. The author of Genesis is in search of a truly transcendent cause. God must be one and not many he thinks. God must be transcendent and not immanent. God must be beyond change, alteration, and becoming. Moses is in search of the Absolute Being and the Absolute Knowing. This is to say that he searches for what is unopposed, unalterable, unchangeable, and not moved or defined by anything or anyone else. He searches for one thing or one being that causes and informs all that is other than itself or himself. He seeks what is, what is I Am. This Being will be beyond all, above all, and responsible for all. Everything that comes to be, into being, must depend upon God. God is omnipotent. The power to begin to be and to begin to know come equally from God. God is omnipotent Being and Knowing and Willing. The author of Genesis is coming into fuller being in coming to know creation. He is beginning to know how all the stages of creation lead up to and include his own nature.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God,
that he may
exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.
(1 St. Peter v. 6,7)
Trinitytide is all about participating in the life of God the Holy Trinity. In the season of Trinity, we are exhorted to return to God the Father, through Jesus Christ the Son, and by the effectual sanctification of the Holy Ghost. What we are invited to participate in is nothing short of the eternal dynamism of the Triune God. This eternal dynamism was intended for us from our very inception and creation. Man was created to live in and through the Father alone, by way of obedience to His Word, and by the Spirit. Man was made to reflect and imitate God’s threefold nature in his own existing, and knowing, and willing. Man was made to perfect his nature through an understanding that God’s Word would generate by the inspiration of the Spirit. God made man to discover and know the good, to freely deliberate over it, and to will it in his life. Man was made as Trinitarian.
But in Adam because of sin all are lost, fallen, and have died to God. In Jesus Christ alone can all be found, purified, and made alive. Jesus Christ alone enables us to enter the life of the Holy Trinity. To do so, we need to discover the tools that enable us to submit to God’s rule and governance once again. Prior to the Fall, Adam possessed these tools. The tools are the virtues. The virtues reveal what we know and how we will the good that God intends for us. St. Ambrose tells us that this morning’s Gospel helps us to begin to acquire both.
In the teaching of our Lord which preceded [today’s] Gospel reading you learned that we are to put away all carelessness, to avoid conceit, to begin to be earnest in religion, not to be held fast to the things of this world, not to place fleeting things before those that endure for ever. (St. Ambrose: Exposition of the Gospel)
St. Ambrose teaches us to be careful about holy things, the things that matter, or what pertains to our salvation. He tells us to avoid conceit since an overinflated sense of self takes up space in the heart that is meant for the real healing and sanctification. He tells us to be earnest in religion because we must be determined to pursue the things that pertain to our salvation. The things of this world cannot save us. They are impermanent, fleeting, and always passing away. We must set our mind’s vision and our heart’s affection on the permanent things that endure forever.
To use an illustration, we must find ourselves this morning in the good company of publicans and sinners who draw near to Jesus to hear Him. (St. Luke xv. 1) The publicans and sinners have a greater reason to draw near to Jesus to hear Him. (Idem) They have been rejected by the religious people of their day. The publicans were Jewish tax-collectors working in the service of the Roman overlords. They were judged to be traitors by pious Jews. The sinners in Jesus’ time have been identified and marked out by the religious establishment as notorious livers –drunkards, prostitutes, lepers, and so forth. Both groups are unlikely to be moved by any arrogant conceit and thus draw near to Jesus to hear Him because He has shown a real interest in their lives. Jesus did not shun the publicans and sinners because He knew that they were ripe for His mission. They seemed most open to what moved and defined Him because He did not condemn them but wanted to help them. They seemed to know also that they were in some way lost.
Can we come to know ourselves as lost sheep in need of a Good Shepherd? We might be tempted to dismiss both the publicans and sinners and Jesus in today’s Gospel the way that the Scribes and Pharisees did. What do we read? And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (St. Luke xv. 2) More often than not, we Christians think that Christ is for other people, for the notorious livers that surround us. We pride ourselves in being right with God because we do good works and are basically people of integrity and nobility. Externally we give off the appearance of goodness yet internally we are so pathetically insecure and unstable. Therefore, we measure ourselves in relation to others and conclude that we are good and they are not. Our condition is summarized succinctly by Thomas Merton:
I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken
what you failed to take and I have seized what you could never
get. Therefore, you suffer and I am happy; you are despised and I
am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something,
and I am the more something because you are nothing. And I thus
spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this
even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who
have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was
beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on
my death. (The Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 33)
Such is our spiritual condition when we refuse to identify with the publicans and sinners. When we live in this way it is we who are truly lost and not the publicans and sinners. We cannot really find ourselves because we are caught up in the feverish pursuit of importance that relates only to other men and not to God. Merton goes on to say that when we behave like the Scribes and Pharisees, we are afflicted with spiritual pride. Thinking that we are moving up in the world, we are really moving down in God’s eternal judgment of our lives. They have forgotten that they are first and foremost the sheep of God, always in danger or erring and straying from His ways, as the Morning Prayer General Confession reminds us. They have forgotten too the words of Jeremiah: Hear the word of the Lord, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock. (Jer. xxi. 10)
Identifying with the publicans and sinners is a good way to begin our journey into the life of God the Holy Trinity. Only those who are despised, broken, abandoned, and even exiled by their fellow men can know and feel the need for God’s saving power. Jesus uses today’s two parables to show knowledge of their condition and His remedy for it. In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus shows that he has compassion on those who have foolishly and unwittingly ended up spiritually lost. Sin is oftentimes an ignorance. (Trench: Parables, p. 288) St. Paul tells us that he was once a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Tim. i. 13) How often have sinners fallen into a sin that they thought was a form of the good or a type of remedy that would, at least, alleviate an already too painful life? How often have sinners fallen into sin thinking it was the best that earthly life could afford to them? In either case, objectively speaking, the sinner deserves wrath and yet Jesus the Good Shepherd offers God’s patience and pity.
How often have men done sinful things before they even knew that they were precious sheep being pursuing by a loving Shepherd? How often have men done sinful things before coming to know that they were the offspring of God and belonged to a greater fold? Think about the countless numbers of men who throw themselves away because they think that they have no value, no meaning, and no worth. How long is it before they discover that they have been stamped in the image and likeness of God and that they are a royal people whose very natures are minted in the treasury of a great King? How long is it before they discover that they are like the lost coin of a woman who lights a candle, sweeps the house, and searches diligently until she finds it? (Ibid, 8)
Jesus spake these parables to publicans and sinners because they were nearest to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are nearest because they discover that Jesus the Good Shepherd knows them. The parables prove it. In them He reveals that He knows that they have erred and strayed foolishly from God’s ways. He reveals that He knows that they have forgotten their true meaning and worth. He knows them and so lovingly reveals that His Mission and End is to find them and carry them back to God the Father! They have been lost to the love and concern of their fellow men for too long. They have been demeaned and devalued by all others for the same duration. But now they find one who will do all that He can to find, redeem, and save them. He will enter the darkest, dreariest, and deadliest place to save them. He will do all that He can to bring them back to His Father’s Kingdom. He will not weary when the thorns would cut into His head, His hands, and His feet. He will not tire when the way would wound and even crucify Him. This Good Shepherd would lay down His life for His sheep. (St. John x. 15)
Publicans and sinners alone can be saved by Jesus Christ. Because they discover that they are known and loved by Jesus Christ, they can learn to know and love God. Jesus finds them. He knows them. He understands their foolishness. He loves them. He values them above all else. He articulates their predicament. And so, He desires to carry them back to the Father. Jewish publicans and sinners in Jesus’ day would have recognized the image of God the Good Shepherd. The time that Jesus spends with them is the first finding of God’s lost sheep. They must respond with repentance. We must respond with repentance. For if it be only one of them that does repent, one of us that does repent, there will be joy in Heaven. The repentance of one last, one least, one seemingly insignificant lone penitent triggers the ecstatic joy of the angels. And so today let us be humbled under the mighty hand of God. Today, God’s knowledge finds us in Jesus. Today, God’s love makes us one with the publicans and sinners through the Holy Spirit. Today let us join them in pursuing the perfection of God the Holy Trinity in our being, knowing, and loving.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons