What is easier to say ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ or
‘Arise take up thy bed and walk’?
(St. Matthew ix. 4)
In last week’s reflections on the life of St. Luke the Evangelist we studied the nature of healing. What we found was that the healing that Jesus Christ brings into the world is the means of sanctification that leads to our salvation. We found also that without the desire for that healing, we cannot hope to begin the journey back to God. But desiring healing is no easy business. Too often those who count themselves Christians are people who think that they are healthy and so need not a physician. Today we must learn to pray for that healing that we receive only through the forgiveness of all our sins.
Simon Tugwell reminds us that the one and only comment on prayer that Christ gave to His Church is that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. (Matt. vi. 14… in Prayer: Living with God, p. 80) So, a sure sign that we have not received the forgiveness of sins from Jesus Christ is our failure to forgive others. When we do not forgive others, we can rest assured that the forgiveness of sins does not rule and govern us from the throne of our hearts. We take it for granted that Our Heavenly Father will forgive us repeatedly, will wink at our sins, and disregard what we consider to be minor foibles. We treat forgiveness of sins like some kind of entitlement benefit that we deserve for being card-carrying Christians. But what this reveals is that we do not treat sin, confession, forgiveness, or Christ’s command to Go and sin no more with much seriousness. Rather than seeing ourselves as those who are always most in need of forgiveness and so must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. ii. 12), we are filled with pride over whatever goodness we think we possess and we are threatened by the goodness of those who, rightly, and even charitably, do not find our spiritual levity and superficiality either attractive or enticing.
So what stops us from receiving and extending the forgiveness of sins is our own pride. We are too arrogant or hubristic to confess our vices and to realize that the forgiveness of sins alone leads to new life. All hope for potential inner healing has been quenched by an immature addiction to fear and anxiety. We fear the opinion of others if we claim and confess utter powerlessness over the sin in our lives. And so we spend our days trying to show the world that we are sane, sound, and successful. But the truth of the matter is that inwardly and spiritually we are broken, wounded, suffering and sinful. Pride commands us to put on a good face, and so we move on appearing to be one thing, while in all reality we are quite another. Pride tells us that we can hold it all together, fend for ourselves, do perfectly well without anyone’s help. When we encounter goodness in others that we do not possess, our pride is threatened, our security teeters, our self-reliance wavers, and we envy that goodness we are afraid to pursue. So pride turns into envy. Dorothy Sayers, in her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, says this:
The sin of envy always contains… an element of fear. The proud man is
self-sufficient, rejecting with contempt the notion that anybody can be
his equal or superior. The envious man is afraid of losing something
by the admission of superiority in others, and therefore looks with
grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness.
(D.C.: Purg. p. 170)
The envious man is afraid that the superiority of other men’s gifts might threaten and devalue his own. And so his thoughts, words, and even works aim to destroy his privileged neighbor and deprive him of any goodness. Falsely thinking that the goodness he lacks can never be found, he is determined that no other man should ever find it either.
Of course, pride that turns into envy kills the forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others. This is a temptation for us all. Accepting the preeminent place of God’s forgiveness is no easy thing, especially because our world defines truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil by changing and shifting standards of feeling and emotion. Most of us, when left to our own devices and desires, measure out forgiveness in so far as it promotes and protects our underdeveloped and fragile egos. Sometimes we think that we have forgiven others and we feel proud of ourselves, not realizing that from the position of our supposed moral superiority we disdain them and we rejoice that their weakness depends upon our generosity. At other times we find forgiveness costs too much, and so we withhold it, all the while envying him whose life seems to move along quite effortlessly without it. We feel sorrow and anger at such prosperity and success. If our withholding forgiveness has hurt another, we rejoice in our power to begrudge another man his share in goodness, and so we rejoice over his sadness and hurt. He deserves it, so we think. But in all three cases pride and envy combine to hurt ourselves and others because we have never truly discovered the forgiveness of sins.
We see both the danger of these sins and the alternative virtue in this morning’s Gospel lesson. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. (St. Matthew ix. 2) Jesus not only brings the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity but is determined to offer it as God’s response to that faith that humbly longs for true healing. Forgiveness is God’s first response of love to His faithful people. He comes to heal first the sickness of the soul and then, only perhaps, the ailments of the body. As Archbishop Trench remarks, ‘Son, be of good cheer’, are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance on his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ (Miracles, p. 157) The man does not ask for the healing of his body, but his soul cries out for the relief of an even greater inner burden. He is not proud but humble, and so does not envy or begrudge Jesus the goodness He possesses but seeks it out with a passion that words cannot utter. So Jesus declares that his sins are forgiven. This is what wholly unnerves the Scribes. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. (Ibid, 3) If a mere mortal had claimed such authority, he might be rightly condemned of usurping and stealing that power that belongs to God alone. But what they did not see was that God was in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19) And yet we sense something more at work in the hearts of the Scribes. Were they bothered most because Jesus claimed the power of God? Or was it that their own priestly prerogatives regarding ritual atonement for sin were being threatened by a power they did not possess? Jesus knew that they were moved by pride and envy. And so He says, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. (Ibid, 4-7) Jesus admits that in one way it is easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee, than to say, Take up thy bed and walk. But because the Scribes have never known the true effect of the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings, He proceeds to heal the man’s body and to show that His words have power to bring about a lasting spiritual cure. Take up thy bed and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 7)
Today we learn that the healing medicine that Christ brings to us is twofold. First, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…. (1 St. John i. 9) Repentance is needed since our sinful flesh is always too ready to side with the cruel enemy of our souls. This things of this world press hard upon us, either to terrify us out of our duty, or humour us into our ruin. (Jenks, 221) Thus the Great Physician instructs us to canvass our hearts each day in order to find those thoughts and desires that run contrary to God’s will for us. With St. Paul this morning we must not walk, in the vanity of [our] mind[s], having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through…ignorance…because of the blindness of [our] hearts. (Eph. iv. 17, 18) The healing that Christ brings to us is a response to the confession of our sins. We confess our sins in the light of Christ’s presence as our minds are illuminated by His wisdom and our hearts softened into sorrow and contrition by His love. So regular confession is the first step towards Christ’s forgiveness of our sins.
Second, when we practice penance habitually, Christ will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 9) In this process we learn that as often as we repent, the Lord forgives. For the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him. (Ps. ciii. 17) So what should overawe and stupefy us as we are renewed in the spirit of [our]mind[s], as we put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. iv. 23, 24), is that God’s forgiveness is nothing short of a superabundant excess of His love and mercy for us. We shall realize that as Christ forgives us, as Simon Tugwell writes, We cannot let the truth of God’s being penetrate our own sin, so that we may be forgiven, if at the same time we are trying to exclude one essential aspect of that truth [in failing to forgive any other man]. (Ibid, 91) God’s forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ is the miracle of Love that desires continuously to conquer all sin. If the forgiveness we receive takes root downward and bears fruit upward, through us it will be showered indiscriminately on all others. For only then will it have become the Love of our lives. What is easier to say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee” or “Arise take up thy bed and walk”? (St. Matthew ix. 4)
Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved:
For thou art my praise.
(Jer. xvii. 14)
Trinity tide is all about the flow of God’s Grace into the hearts of faithful souls who desire to ascend ultimately back to God the Father. And in this season our Collects, Epistles, and Gospels instruct us in the acquisition of this Grace. Grace is absolutely necessary for our salvation and it is given to be embraced here and now that we might always be moving towards the Kingdom in our earthly lives. Grace is not only about a benefit or gift that will be bestowed upon us in some future then, but it is the very means by which we are moved now as God’s love for us becomes the usual and familiar motivation of our every intention. What Christians desire now is to be so moved and defined exclusively by God’s will or love, that in the end their reception and capacity for the Divine love will be rewarded with perfect joy in the vision of God.
But if we are going to begin to embrace the Grace of God in the here and now, we must pray in the words of this morning’s Collect that God’s Grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works… . (Collect Trinity XVII) The word prevent here is used in the old English sense of to come before. So we ask that the Grace of God should come or stand before us. Before us then should entail a vision and consciousness of God’s antecedent desire to lead, guide, and direct us in all good works. Before us we should see and perceive that power whose strength and might alone can embolden us, a wisdom whose brightness and illumination alone can direct us, and a love whose compassion and mercy alone can sanctify us. God is before us to draw us forward and upward towards Himself.
We pray also in the words of the Collect that this Grace might follow us. Not only do we desire that Grace should come down from Heaven before us, but also beneath and behind us. And this is where we tend to have trouble. God’s preventing us or coming before us doesn’t seem difficult. Aristotle says that God is the final purpose, end, and termination of all things. God causes all movement through love, and God draws things to Himself by being loved. (Met; 1072b4) So a man looks out into nature and as he searches for the causes of all being and meaning, he is moved finally to rest in God the First Cause. God comes before man and draws him back to Himself. Or, in the case of God’s fullest and final revelation and manifestation of himself, we believe that God in Jesus Christ has come before us in history long ago and comes before and into us now through His body and blood by the operation of the Holy Spirit. And so the author of Hebrews writes: Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebr. iv. 16)
But this business of God’s Grace following us, or being behind and beneath doesn’t seem as easy to grasp. Getting behind and beneath the human condition seems strange to us. Like Aristotle we tend to want God to present Himself to us in a straightforward way, by drawing us logically forward, step by step, into His Grace. We should prefer to be the ones who are doing the following. And yet if we do not allow God’s Grace, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, to follow us, I fear that we shall never let ourselves be found and then healed by the Grace that He alone can apply to our souls. So what I would like to suggest to you today is that we are not only following God’s Grace, but we are being followed always by God in Jesus Christ, and that this Divine pursuit is essential to our sanctification and salvation.
We have a nice illustration of the reality I describe in today’s Gospel Lesson. In it we read that as Jesus went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day, that they watched Him. (St. Luke xiv. 1) At the outset we seem to have an example of God in Jesus Christ coming before us. Far from being followed by Jesus, it would appear that the Pharisees are following Jesus’ every move and word, for they watched Him. (Idem) But Jesus doesn’t waste any time in clarifying the situation. He knows what the judgmental and censorious religious elders of the day are up to and so He takes command of the situation. They think that man is made for the Sabbath and not the Sabbath day for man. Jesus knows that they believe that the rules and laws that govern the Lord’s Day are non-negotiable, binding, and inviolable. They follow the form of worship so strictly that they have evicted and expelled its substance and meaning. And so they follow Jesus, hoping that He may be caught in violation of the Law.
But what do we read next? And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day? And they held their peace. (Ibid, 2-4) It just so happens that there is a man who had been following Jesus and who is sick with the dropsy. Dropsy is what we would call edema, or a case of excessive fluids in the body which could lead to congestive heart failure. Dropsy makes one unable to function in any normal ambulatory way and is a severe handicap. So on the celebration of the Lord’s Day, prior to the normative feasting, we find an auspicious interruption. Jesus takes the man, heals him, and lets him go. (Ibid, 4) Then He asks the assembled guests, Which of you shall have an ***** or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things. (Ibid, 5) The Pharisees and lawyers are rigorous and uncompromising when it comes to their observance of the Lord’s Day. But while they will withhold mercy and kindness to their fellow men, they will nevertheless show compassion on their pets and beasts of burden. Their silence conceals an inner rage at their hypocrisy’s uncovering and an envy which will pursue vengeance at a later date.
Before them is a man whose body is full of excessive fluids that threaten immanent cardiac arrest. He knows that he is sick and diseased and so follows Jesus in pursuit of what love and mercy alone can effect. Jesus follows this sick man, gets beneath and behind his sorry state and does what God desires to do on every Sabbath Day – heal! Ironically enough, these Pharisees and lawyers are so full of excessive spiritual fluids that their souls have hardened into an arrogance that prevents them from admitting that they are wrong. They have contracted spiritual dropsy! St. Augustine interprets Christ’s condemnation of these hypocritical Jews: You grudge that I should deliver this man on such a day from the water that is choking [his heart]; yet if the same danger from water threatened one of your ***** or oxen you would make no scruple of extricating [or saving] it on the Sabbath day. Why then do you not love your neighbor as yourselves? Why are you unwilling that this sick man should receive the help which you would not refuse to your own brute beasts? (Quaest. Evang. ii. 29) So Christ not only follows the sick man and heals him, but He follows the sinful fraudulence of the Pharisees. With the Jeremiah this morning He says, I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. xvii. 10)
But Jesus tells a parable to reveal more fully the sin of the Pharisees. When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. (Ibid, 7-10) Our Lord Jesus here rebukes not only the behavior of the Pharisees but that of all religious people who will not allow Him to follow them, find them, and get beneath and behind their spiritual sickness in order to provoke a need for a cure. So Jesus exhorts all men to sit in the lowest room. What He means is that we should practice a humility and meekness that leads us to identify with the dropsical man. With him we should know our sickness and that the Sabbath Day is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath day. (St. Mark ii. 27) Jesus is following us to trigger the need for His merciful healing of our sin-soaked condition. As St. John Chrysostom says, with the Pharisees we should identify with that sinful tendency to be conscious…of innumerable virtuous actions…and that this will be of no profit unless we look upon ourselves as the lowest of men. For this is humility; when someone who has reason to be honored, remains obscure and unknown…. (J.Chry: Moral Exhortation to Humility)
Today we come to church with the knowledge that Christ is following us and that He knows us better than we know ourselves. Today we come to pray for the humility that will open our hearts to His healing mercy. We should never run away because God in Jesus Christ is following us. He does this because He loves us. And as we humbly confess that we have not been open to what He reveals to us about ourselves, we should not fear His correction. For though, as St. Augustine says, we have often thought to escape God when we lifted our heads in pride, [we should] humble them and fly to Him…. For He is good when He spares [us] and when He chastises [us]; for everywhere He is truly merciful. (Meditation on the Humility of Christ) And then because whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Ibid, 11), with Jeremiah we shall earnestly pray, Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise. (Jer. xvii. 14)
Jesus did not come to explain away
suffering, or to remove it.
He came to fill it with His presence.
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that lead the faithful pilgrim into the experience of the Real Presence of God. And I am not speaking of somehow feeling God in the way that we feel the cold or heat, feel the pressure of another body against our own, or feel anything sensibly or tangibly. I am speaking of a kind of spiritual assurance, whose strength and might comfort the mind, fortify conviction, and infuse man’s being with the stable and unchanging determination of God’s power. I am talking about an inward and spiritual faith that encounters God’s presence in the uncertain and changing here and now, only to carry it progressively into the permanent realm of truth, beauty, and goodness. In layman’s terms, I am trying to describe the belief that opens itself up to the Jesus who desires to begin the salvation process now, as he leads us slowly but surely to his kingdom. And I hope to show why belief in the spiritual truth is to be preferred to despair over earthly and mundane matters.
So let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We are in the city of Nain. Nain is a place barren of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place sits the ruined village of Endor. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) The place, to this day, is lifeless, empty, and void of any future fertility. Its external and visible characteristics show little sign of promise. But it is into such a place that Christ’s presence is drawn often than not. Barren places have no power in themselves to resuscitate or renew themselves. They are sterile, impotent, and lifeless. They need the intrusion of an alien energy to live, and move, and find their being once again.
And so we read: Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) As the physical surrounding is parched, dried, and depleted so too is the heart of the widow woman whose sole pride and joy has been snatched away from her embrace. We all know someone who has suffered the tragedy of losing a child. And, perhaps, its pain is worst when the parent is widowed and the mother of an only child. Whatever the conditions, consolation, hope, and future joy seem the distant dream of wishful thinking. The child in whom the parent has invested all manner of hard work and anticipatory hope is no longer. With the psalmist this morning, she cries inwardly and spiritually, the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3) And yet it is always into this pain and agony of soul, that Christ comes gladly, with much people. Christ never comes alone since the presence of those who are following Him make up the new community of hope into which the bereaved is welcomed.
The crowd of mourners that surrounds the mother is silent and still, for they can do nothing to alleviate her suffering. But when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) Christ alone bears the burden of compassion that can say, Weep not. Christ alone can suffer to bring new life out of death. I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) The Widow of Nain’s tears are the seeds of new life that Jesus will infuse into her dead’s son’s corpse. Jesus says, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. (Idem) The Word is spoken and the spirit of the dead obeys. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. His words are the only suitable response to the power of the living God in the heart of Jesus. With the psalmist he sings, The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level specifics of an historical miracle of physical resuscitation. Surface level experiences and historical events must find their respective meanings elsewhere, through the Spirit that reveals their deeper significance. Think about the widow of Nain. She is confronted with a natural loss and earthly death; she can mourn, despair, and give up on life because the object and recipient of her natural love is now gone. She can live in her body but be dead in her soul because of the loss of her son. But when her son is brought back to life, she can choose to reignite her obsession and addiction to her son’s earthly welfare. She can treat the miracle as a strange but welcome surprise that will be forgotten with time. Or she can find in the miracle an awakening to another kind of life. Perhaps now she can see that her son was brought back to life so that he and she might come alive spiritually to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The point is this: suffering and death are common to all men, and sooner or later one or both will visit us all. But what will be the relation of our spiritual lives to this suffering and death? In the process of suffering, are we also dying to ourselves and coming alive to God in Jesus Christ, so that whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lords? (Romans xiv. 8)
Today we are alive physically, alive to the happiness, creature comforts, good food, fine wine, the economy, the hustle and bustle of political madness, and other accoutrements of what God calls mammon. But are we spiritually alive or dead? Are we conscious that we possess souls that are made to die to all of this that we might come alive to that righteousness that leads to eternal bliss and joy in God’s Kingdom? Are we ready to admit that our souls are too alive to uncertain, unpredictable, impermanent, and perishable lesser goods? Do we claim and confess that we have been too dead to those better, nobler, truer, and more reliable riches whose value never diminishes and whose power never fades away? And if this is true, are we ready to suffer and die to all earthly gods in order to be raised up into that new life which is moved and defined by the unchanging and undying love of God alone? Paul Claudel says that, Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. Jesus intends that what we should learn from the death and resuscitation of the Widow of Nain’s son is that we are made to die to earthly things and come alive to those spiritual motions of His real presence that will carry us on to everlasting life. Young man, I say unto thee, arise. (Ibid, 14)
The condition which Jesus expects to find in us when He visits us with the compassion and mercy of His real presence is nicely summarized by Shakespeare, in Sonnet 146, where the poet comes at last to see that his soul has been imprisoned in a body that has worshipped the things of the earth. This is what he writes:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feed'st] these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there's no more dying then.
Within be fed, without be rich no more. Jesus wants us to admit that the time has come to die to earthly things. The time has come for us to see that we are not created to die a death that never ends, a soul whose body is finally consumed by the worms of the earth. Nay, rather, the soul is meant to swallow the body up into the new life which Jesus will fashion for everlasting habitations. The soul is made to consume and use the body for heavenly ends so that the death that feeds on men will die. Just as Jesus has commenced the spiritual awakening of the young man for a higher life, through which, indeed, alone the joy of the mother could become true and abiding (Trench, Miracles) as Archbishop Trench remarks, He will lift us up out of our earthly suffering and death and into that spiritual life that will wholly refashion us into the creatures we were made to become. Today we must ask ourselves: Will we begin to pray habitually for the compassion and mercy of Jesus that alone brings life out of death? Will we begin to pray for release and emancipation from the rule and sway of earthly things, and for the freedom and liberty with which obey and follow the commands and desires of Jesus Christ? Will we begin to pray for that new life that promises to lead us into God’s Kingdom? If we do, He will awaken our senses to His real presence and we shall sing with the Psalmist, I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living…[for] thou hast delivered my soul from death …Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant, and the son of thy handmaid…, thou hast broken my bonds in sunder. (Ps. cxvi. 14) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons