Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
(1 Cor. x. 12)
Last week we spoke about the Divine Providence of God and how we ought to be intent upon ordering our lives with the Divine Wisdom. This week we remind ourselves that His Wisdom is dead to us if it is not always God’s way of making good out of a bad situation. We must think about God’s always making good because the Christian journey is all about our ongoing assimilation to the goodness that Jesus Christ brings into the world. It is out of a bad situation because we are always in danger of forgetting that we are sinners who are always too capable of becoming worse. That God desires always to make us good and then better means that He intends to work His Word and Wisdom into our fallen state in order to save us. And for this work to be what God begins, continues, and finishes in us, we must always and honestly confess that we are in a bad situation so that we might turn and desire to be made better by His Grace.
Of course, some people would maintain that what I am recommending amounts to an insurmountable task for the common lot of men. If we cannot admit that we are in a very bad situation, then there isn’t much reason to desire what would make us better. Objectively speaking, of course, such is a recipe for disaster in any realm of life. The painter who doesn’t need and desire to paint a better picture won’t! The farmer who has no need or desire to raise more and tastier vegetables in a more efficient way won’t. The doctor who stops looking for cures for diseases will only ever prescribe medication management. So too, the Christian who doesn’t think that he needs to be made better will never see God’s Kingdom! For, when we are driven by our own reason and the limited natures, sooner or later we settle for less because we have ceased to believe that we can find more. What I am trying to say is that we are made for God and our hearts ought to be restless until they rest in Him. The Christian believes that man is made to know and love God forever. But he knows also that he cannot do any good thing without [God]…and that only by [Him] can he be enabled to live according to [His]will. (Collect Trinity IX)
Yet, many Christians fall into trouble when they fail to surrender their bad situation to God’s Grace. St. Paul reminds us of this danger in this morning’s Epistle. He gives us the example of the ancient Jewish people whom God had delivered from bondage and slavery to the Egyptians. He tells us that, all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. x. 1-4) The clouds and the sea reveal to us the natural and spiritual limitations of fallen human nature. Fallen human nature, as experienced by the Ancient Jews, is limited and dragged down by the demands of the body and sensual temptations. Fallen human nature is constrained and held back from the clear vision of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, and so must move forward under the cloud of unknowing until the Incarnation. In faith, the ancient Jews must move forward, acknowledge their sinful alienation from God, and repent. In faith, the ancient Jews must hope also for the fulfilment of God’s loving salvation that would come to them at last in Jesus Christ. The clouds and seas reveal man’s powerlessness and yet at the same time God’s Grace that stirs the ancient Jews to hope for the promise of a much, much better situation.
And yet what do we read next? But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (Ibid, 5) And why? They did not discern the spiritual meaning and purpose of the clouds. They did not unlearn their old natural and earthly ways. They thought that God was merely freeing them from temporal slavery and servitude to an earthly enemy. So, they fell into indulging the old bad situation of their sinful condition. They began to murmur, moan, groan, and complain, wondering all the while why God had delivered them from earthly slavery into what must have seemed a much worse earthy situation. Their obsession with earthly comfort then turned to lust, idolatry, and fornication. God fed them in the desert and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (Ibid, 7) God began to make good out of a bad spiritual situation by calling them to become a spiritual people whose ultimate hope should rest in their coming salvation. They did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (Ibid, 4) St. Paul tells us that the ancient Jews were fed spiritually by the Word of God, or Christ the Rock. He warns us that if like them we should tempt Christ we too shall fall and be destroyed. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. (Ibid, 12)
The ancient Jews were not mindful about how God was leading them forward through faith and hope into a much better spiritual situation. In this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus teaches us how to move from a bad earthly situation into a much better spiritual one. In it, Christ tells the tale of an earthly businessman who had misused money lent to him by a wealthy creditor.
The creditor summons him to his office not only to dress him down but to fire him. He says, 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) And without missing a beat, perceiving the storm clouds looming above, the earthly underling thinks fast: How can I make good out of this very bad situation? What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. (Ibid, 3,4) The unjust steward is proud, but he is also prudent. He knows that he can never repay the loan to his boss. Yet, he is determined not only to survive but to thrive. If the big boss won’t have him, he’ll at least respect him for having the wisdom and prudence to become a little boss. And more than that, he will not only make good out of a bad earthly situation for himself but for the big boss’ other debtors also. He’ll go into the debt-consolidation business! 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. (Ibid, 5-7) The long and short of it is that the big boss is impressed. It is not clear that the big boss had much hope in ever recalling any of his loans, and so he praises the earthly prudence with which his steward has secured this financial settlement. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely…(Ibid, 8)
Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. (Ibid, 8) Of course, Jesus tells the parable not to commend unjust stewardship. What is most instructive in the parable is the prudent due diligence and determination that can be found in the earthlysteward’s detection of the clouds and the need to reform and redeem his life in their shadow. Jesus suggests that unjust or fallen earthly man is often wiser than his spiritual counterpart when it comes to discerning the clouds and making the best out of bad situations. Like the unjust steward, we are in a bad situation, in that we can never repay our Lord, our spiritual creditor, what we owe Him. Like the unjust steward, we are unjust by reason of our spiritual negligence.
Monsignor Knox asks, Who is the Unjust Steward?...He is you and I and every one of us; we are all, as children of Adam, unfaithful servants who have been detected in our delinquency. By rights…we have forfeited every claim. (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, p. 170) Under the clouds of our fallen existence, Christ insists that He cannot feed us until we identify with the unjust steward. We resist the comparison. But if we are honest, we know that we are tempted to be like the unjust steward with his unrighteous mammon. St. Paul reminds us there hath no temptation taken us, but such as is common to man. (1 Cor. x. 13) Perhaps the unjust steward is more common that we admit. Jesus says, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (St. Luke xvi, 9) Are we not all, by nature, the friends of the mammon of unrighteousness? Unjust mammon is that earthly treasure that is a friend to all men because we have some need of it to live. And the temptation to hoard and love money are common to man. Hoarding or loving it can only make us worse and never better! But perhaps we can use the temptation to make us all the more industrious and prudent in our pursuit of that better spiritual mammon that Christ the Rock has in store for us. God is faithful, who will not suffer [us] to be tempted above that [we] are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that [we] may be able to bear it. (1 Cor. x. 13) With prudence we shall discover that the way we escape and bear the temptation is by sharing the mammon of unrighteousness with all other men. The unjust steward helped his friends. So, why can’t we? Then, when we fail, or when we die, they -the poor and needy whom we fed because Christ the Rock has fed and clothed us spiritually, shall welcome us into everlasting habitations because we have allowed God to make the best out of our bad spiritual situation. (Idem)
O God whose never-failing providence ordereth all things
We concluded last week’s mediations with an exhortation to that zeal that turns back to and to accept with meekness the Engrafted Word that is able is save our souls. (St. James i. 21) Having learned that the Divine desire for all men is that they faint not, but rather feed continually on the living Word of God, we opened our souls to the ongoing nutriment that overcomes sloth. We prayed fervently that the love of God might, graf in our hearts the love of His name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and…keep us in the same. We prayed that the same providence that ordereth all things in heaven and earth, might rule and govern our lives zealously. Its actualization, we learned, would depend upon our willful desire and longing for its ongoing and effectual operation.
But what is this never-failing providence that we pray should overcome things hurtful to our pious zeal? Providence comes to us from the Latin providentia, and it means looking or seeing into. In former times the word was used to describe God’s knowledge of all things –past, present, and future, in the eternal now of His perfect vision. Some theological controversialists used it to defend the Divine nature against the claims of others who maintained that God can and does change His mind. The doctrine of Divine providence insists that God knows the present condition of all created life in all ages and simultaneously. Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that nothing ever has or ever will escape His all-penetrating gaze and censorious vision and knowledge. Nothing escapes God’s seeing and knowing, because his never-failing providence orders all things in heaven and earth. Whether men acknowledge it or not, God’s thinking of all things is present to and determinative of everything that ever has, does, or will happen. What happens in the universe is subject completely to God’s will at all times. Even evil itself –a rejection of God’s Wisdom and Will, much to its own rage and resentment, ends up having meaning only in relation to God!
We might find this view of Divine providence not a little bit intimidating. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and frighten us. This is a good and healthy spiritual thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become too used to treating God like the conceptual aider and abettor of temporary healing and earthly comfort. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome any physical or material impediment to human happiness and comfort. Of course, what they have forgotten is that familiarity breeds contempt. Spiritual familiarity –that tendency to presume upon God’s approval of our present choices and habits, betrays an arrogance or hubris that can never admit of the need for God’s Grace and His promise of salvation. The so-called Christian who has become overly familiar with God, uses Him as a tool and instrument for fulfilling human desire over and against the Divine Will.
Such a spiritual disposition is not, of course, one that God intends for us to embrace. God does indeed see and know all things. His ever-present gaze sifts, weighs, and measures the devices and desires of [all human] heart[s], or the intentions and motives of men’s hearts and their voluntary choices. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where men’s voluntary choices situate them in relation to His Divine Love and Wisdom. God is nothing if not fair. St. Paul reminds us: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. vi. 7,8) What we will to think, say, and do shall, in the end, be summarized perfectly as what is one with or alienated from God’s love…forever.
What we should want, then, is for the Divine Wisdom to bring us to the knowledge and love of God forever. First, we need to discern or come to know God’s vision for all things and how He intends for them to be used. What I mean is that we should discover the forms and natures of created substances. Next, we must learn how to use them appropriately. St. Paul reminds us this morning that we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans viii. 12, 13)Providence, again, is the vision or knowledge by which God the Spirit enlivens, orders, rules, governs, informs, and defines created life. It is the Divine Wisdom which we must discover and perfect as knowledge becomes virtue in our everyday lives.
The author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson tells us that man best begins to open up to it through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) We ought to fear God’s wisdom because it alone leads us to fulfill God’s intentions and purposes. An acorn is made to grow into an oak tree. Fire rises and burns. Water fertilizes to grow or cleanses to purge. Man is made to know the natures of all things and to return them to God through Love and Wisdom. Through knowing God’s Love or Wisdom, we come to will the Good. The fear of the Lord is that healthy state that admonishes and cautions us before we make any rational decision. Whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him at the last. (Ecclus. i. 14) The fear of the Lord is a salutary reminder that we ought to use the creation only in God’s service now so that it may go well with us in the end. It is a salubrious sense of God’s omnipresent vision and desire for us. For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah lvii. 15) The fear of the Lord engenders that humility of heart that wills the good. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate. (Prov. viii. 13)
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas, quoting Aristotle, says it belongs to the wise man to order….The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.(SCG i. 1) The wise man rules his earthly life through the perfection of intellectual virtue. The wiser man knows that it belongs to the gift of wisdom to judge according to the Divine Truth. A man judges well what he knows. (Eth. i. 3, ST, ii, ii, xlv. 1) Divine Wisdom has become incarnate in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ the Word of God has borne the burden of human sin, lifting it from ignorance into knowledge by Divine Wisdom and lifting into righteousness by Divine Love. Wisdom made flesh now, as always, desires to rule and govern our lives. It teaches us that we should be debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (Romans viii. 12). Rather, the Divine providence intends that we should be illuminated and liberated by Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24), remembering that if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live. (Romans viii. 13) Mortifying the deeds of the body is the means to a higher end.
In this morning’s Gospel, the wise man is compared to a good tree that bringeth forth good fruit. (St. Matthew vii. 17) The good fruit are the virtues that grow up out of a body tamed by the soul that serves the Spirit. Ιf the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. (Ibid, 11)
In the face of Divine Wisdom, we must ask ourselves this morning these questions: Do I habitually acknowledge the never-failing providence that orders all things in heaven and earth? Do I fall down before God because my creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life depend upon His providence? Do I desire that His Wisdom might enter my soul and crucify all things hurtful that distract and delay my adhesion to His will? Do I remember that I was born to be a child of God’s omnipotent Wisdom through the fear of the Lord, seeking, knocking, and asking? As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii 14) The Spirit of Wisdom cries How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. (Proverbs i. 21-23)
Today’s lessons do not merely teach us about vision or even willing a limited good. William Law reminds us that we are not the Christians that Christ intends because it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. What we intend is moved by what we know and love. So, we pray, We humbly beseech thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which are profitable for us….(Collect, Trinity VIII) God knows that we are surrounded by wolves in sheep’s clothing. They intend to keep us focused on spurious earthly plagues that have all the potential to possess us as false gods. But Christ intends that we become the good fruit of the spiritual harvest that His Word alone yields in our souls. Our destination is Heaven, and if we hope to reach it, we must embrace His Spirit with zeal and prudent application. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
O God who hast prepared for them that love Thee
such good things as pass man’s understanding…
(Collect: Trinity VI)
Trinity tide is all about growing in the knowledge and love of God; it is the green season, and in it, we focus on God’s spiritual harvesting of fertile virtue in our souls. The green vestments and Altar hangings of the season encourage us to pursue the fecundity of spiritual love with hope. We are being readied for things whose goodness, truth, and beauty exceed our wildest imagination. Yet the promised vision hinges upon our loving God above all things. The Divine Lover will reward our love for Him if we intend above all to be taken into His embrace. Our spiritual passion must be focused upon obtaining the Divine promises. Pour into our hearts such love toward Thee, that we, loving Thee above all things, may obtain Thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire. We love God above all things because we long to be rewarded with what His love has intended for us all along.
But the virtue of loving God is not easily attained. Last week, as St. Peter and his fellow Apostles obeyed Jesus by letting down their nets for a draught of fishes and found themselves the beneficiaries of supernatural power, they surrendered themselves to the radical otherness of God in Jesus. So, with a deeper fear of the Lord, their faith in Jesus was stirred to forsake all and follow Him. (St. Luke v. 11) For, they were being caught up in Christ’s net. Slowly but surely they began to die to themselves as they began to love Him who loved them with the Love He receives from the Father. To be loved inspires a potential response. As the Apostles were touched by the love of God in the heart of Jesus, they would then begin to return the same love.
But if we are going to learn how to love God above all things, we had better begin with obedience, the fear of the Lord, and faith in God’s promises. Christ says to us today that except [our] righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, [we] shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew v. 20) The righteousness or justice of the ancient Jews –of the Scribes and Pharisees – is the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus makes it clear that the observance of this law reveals a primitive spiritual posture that is bent on resentment and revenge. The man who practices this law thinks much too highly of himself and all others as the servants of his self-importance. It judges men and then rewards or punishes according to the measure of self-interest. It elevates human justice as ultimate and final. And, as Romano Guardini reminds us, so long as we cling to this human justice, we will never be guiltless of injustice. As long as we are entangled in wrong and revenge, blow and counterblow, aggression and defense, we will be constantly drawn into fresh wrong. (The Lord, p. 81) Think about it. We expect to receive what we mete out. We reward good and punish evil, and we feel that we have in some way advanced the cause of justice in the world. That we have never given much thought to how God sees the situation is evidenced in our over-inflated egos, exaggerated and embellished hurts and wounds, and destructive identification of injustice done to us with some kind of cosmic event. We think that we have won a victory for justice when in truth we have become the unwitting victims of an unending cycle of sin. Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans xii. 19)
Jesus goes on to locate the origin and cause of our inadequate love and exaggerated hate in the soul. Ye have heard that it was said by 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: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.(Ibid, 21, 22) By reason of our fallen spiritual condition we naturally love those who love us and hate those who hate us. We love those less who do not love us enough and hate those more who hate us passionately. We judge their inadequate love to be hate and we respond in kind or worse. And while there may be just cause for righteous anger in certain situations, Christ seems to imply that this is all the more reason to love with greater passion in the interests of helping an offending brother out of his sin and into righteousness. This is what God wants. Yet because of our own insecurities, we respond with, Raca or Thou Fool! The Biblical Scholars tells us that Raca means worthless or empty one. So, Jesus says that the man who is angry with his brother and not the cause (Idem), is in spiritual trouble. Jesus says that what happens is that the sinner and not his sin has become an object of retaliation and retribution. What has happened is that the offending party has been elevated to the status of a worthless and empty false god. If we hadn’t made him into a false god, we would treat him with that love and hope that Jesus has for all men.
Jesus teaches us that the real threat to loving [God] above all things is inward spiritual insecurity and fear. Anger or wrath shields them by deflecting any challenge or contest. What is feared most is the illumination of God’s truth through the power of His love. When one hates another man, he ceases to hope for that man’s conversion and salvation. He judges his enemy –if he even is an enemy, because he has never felt the healing power of God’s mercy in his own soul. He is afraid to be touched by God’s love. He forgets that his soul is always desired by God for healing and transformation. Because he is afraid, he finds God’s love too daunting to accept because its conditions are too burdensome.
However, if God’s merciful curative love begins to touch and change human life, as it did with the Apostles, there is hope that it will grow into the discovery of God’s promises. It must be embraced passionately and with all due diligence. All potential threats to its growth in the soul must be abandoned with all haste. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother …Agree with thine adversary quickly…lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. (Ibid, 24,25) What imperils the growth of God’s love in our hearts is our condemnation of other men. The angry pursuit of earthly justice elevates human injury to the level of Divine importance. Human justice may yield limited vengeance against an earthly enemy, but what does it harvest? A crop of self-satisfaction that quenches the spiritual discovery of those good things as pass man’s understanding…and the promises that exceed all that we can desire. What is lost is the needful and merciful love of God which longs to lift the accuser and accused above their division and difference and into His loving intention for all. Anger makes [a man] smaller, while forgiveness enables him to grow beyond what he was. (Cherie Carter-Scott)
Jesus teaches us that if we long for such good things as pass man’s understanding, we need God’s compassionate love as the only curative and corrective that can heal and save us. We must bring to death anything and everything that impedes the progress of our loving God above all things. We must admit, with Dr. Jenks, that we have foolishly and wickedly forsaken the fountain of living waters, to hew to ourselves broken cisterns, that can hold no water; shutting our hearts against the love of our chiefest good…preferring trifles and vanities of this present time; and the satisfaction of our own foolish and hurtful lusts, above God and His love, which is better than life itself. (Jenks, Prayers…168)
So if we would embrace God’s love, we must agree with our adversary quickly. (Idem) This is the testing ground for our love. On it God sees whether we truly are aiming to love Him above all things. Agreeing with our adversary quickly means that we ought to listen quietly and calmly to those who have something against us. It encourages us to lift our enemy up into the heart of God and to pray for rather than judge him with a harsh word or violent affection. Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that the remedy for anger is gentleness and patience. Gentleness is a posture of goodwill that quashes impulsive rash rage in order to discern our enemy’s sickness and pray for his cure. Patienceendures our enemy’s spiritual illness out of love for his salvation. Both gentleness and patience are virtues that come out of the heart of Christ who loves God above all things. Christ enlarges His heart to welcome us into His loving. His gentleness and patience enabled His love to go to the Cross for us. But His love does not cease to flow back to God and out to all men in His death. His love is that Divine gentleness and patience that rises up into Resurrection and Ascension and then descends once again into Pentecostal fire. It loves God above all things and loves God in and for all things. It seeks what is above in order to penetrate and convert what is below. Because it is always returning to its source, it can bring good out of evil, right out of wrong, and love out of hate. This is the love that exceeds our intellect’s imagination. It is the love that we find at the Cross. St. Paul reminds us that if we embrace this love, we shall be dead unto sin and alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) This is the love of the Crucified One, who died unto sin once, so that we might live unto God through Him.
Of course, Christ doesn’t force His love upon us, and we mustn’t force it upon others. It is enforced only through law and order when the most wicked of men must acquiesce through tough love. But we must pray for them, regardless. Divine love must be desired so that its nature can be cherished. And so long as we do not agree with our adversary quickly, we merely postpone its discovery and thus forsake its effects.
…The people pressed upon him to hear the word of God…
(St. Luke v. 1)
Are you spending your life pressing upon [Jesus] to hear the Word of God? (Idem) And if you are, what good has it done you? Do your neighbors recognize the Word of God made flesh alive in your souls? Or does your Christianity involve only an institutional identification that has made others think no further than this address or location? Jane is a quaint gal. I believe that she goes to that Anglican Church near the Mexican restaurant. Perhaps you come to this church and hear the Word of God on Sundays. Does your religion travel with you out of these doors? St. James tells us, Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only. (St. James i. 22)Are you doers of the Word or hearers only? Hearing is one thing; doing is quite another. Today we are invited to press upon Jesus to hear God’s Word so that hearing it we might then obey. Obedience will be the key to the door of doing God’s Word.
Prior to this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus had been thrown out of His home town of Nazareth, barely escaping with His life. No prophet is accepted in his own country. (St. Luke iv. 24). So, He travelled into Capernaum where His Word was both authoritative and effective. In Capernaum, Christ had cast a demon out of a possessed man, he drove a fever out of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and had cast unclean spirits out of many others. Finally, He had retired to a desert place to recuperate in prayer.
Next we read that Jesus moved down into the fishing village of Genesaret, thronged by a mob of people who would hear the Word of God. That the crowd was now determined to hearGod’s Word is a sign that they are awakened to the spiritual power and love beneath and behind the signs and wonders that He performed. To see Christ alive and at work in the lives of common men compels seekers to hear God’s Word and to follow Him into another dimension. Because the crowd was so large and pressed upon Him so earnestly, Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. (St. Luke v. 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) The land signifies the established world of human reason, commerce, and busy-ness. The business of the land is characterized by that clamor, confusion, hustle, and bustle that always accompany man’s obsessive pursuit of earthly ends. Christ must thrust out a little from the land in order to be freed from those earthly distractions that compete loudly and selfishly with the Word of God that all people must hear.
But notice too that our Gospel image provides us with an image of two kinds of people that are involved. First there are the people who must be content to remain on the shore to hear God’s Word, and then those whose hearing will yield to obedience. Of course, Christ intends that both groups should be caught up in His net as spiritual fish, eventually, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, but the Apostles must be converted from hearing to doing first so that later they could become fishers of the other men for Christ. So, Saint Peter in particular, and then Saints James and John who were with him in the boat, represent the fish that are first caught up into Christ’s net. The people on the shore represent the fish that will be caught on land once the Apostles return from having been culled from the deeper waters of Christ’s spiritual sea. Each group signifies the different stages of hearing and doing that characterize man’s nearness and distance from God in Jesus Christ.
Next, we read that both the fish out of water on the land and the fish out of water in the ships hear the Word of God preached by Christ. One group is invited to hear and then to launch out further onto the sea through obedience. Simon, like his fellow fishers on land, has had a long, unsuccessful night of fishing. Matthew Henry tells us that One would have thought this should have excused them from Christ’s sermon; but it was more refreshing and reviving to them than the softest slumbers. (Comm. Luke V) The people on the shore would hear Christ’s preaching, but they did not have the same determination to procure the refreshing and reviving that it must bring. The fishermen on shore washed their nets and went to bed. The Apostles would turn from their failure and fatigue not only to hear the good Word that Christ would speak but also to discover its power through obedience. Obedience perfects hearing. When Christ had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing…(Ibid, 4,5) The Apostles worked hard to catch their fish, but Christ always has a better work for them to do since earthy aims at worldly ends always fail. With the same industrious zeal that made them try their hand at good fishing, they would turn to Christ for succor. Christ would take their perseverance and passion and inflame it anew with His plans for them. For though Peter’s natural gifts might falter and fail, he entrusts himself to Christ with hope for another kind of gain. Nevertheless, at thy Word, I will let down the net. (Ibid)
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) The miracle stops them in their tracks in different ways. Peter, James, and John call on their partners to pull in the haul of fishes that caused the boats to sink. James and John are silent and speechless. Peter alone will respond with the whole of himself. 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 finds in the Person of Jesus Christ. Nature’s creatures which had refused to fall for the fishermen’s skill were now jumping to obey the Lord’s command. No natural need, no natural alarm accounts for this unanimous tendency amongst the fish; drawn by an unseen force, they forget their favorite pools…and all head one way. The Lord of Nature has bid them come. (R. Knox, Parochial Sermons, Ignatius, p. 501) Both Christ’s rule and nature’s obedience elicit Peter’s dramatic fall. Archbishop Trench describes Peter’s realization: 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)
The crowd on the shore heard the Word of God from Jesus. The fish heard the Word and rendered themselves wholly submissive to the Lord of all creation’s intentions for the Apostles. The natural world yields to Christ’s power and St. Peter imitates their devotion. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God, that 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 only and ever hang upon the Divine Mercy for their existence. Nature’s creatures yield to the Maker’s power. Peter falls down and joins his friends –the dying fish. Peter must die spiritually in order imitate the dying fish. Peter is a fish caught up into the net of Christ.
Yet it is Christ's will that this death which Peter, James, and John begin to endure should be turned into new life. Again, with Archbishop Trench, 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 [his sin] 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. (Idem) Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) Peter, James, John, and the other Apostles are called to become fishers of men. But not before they fall down and die to their former selves. What they must see at once is that God’s Word’s made flesh alone can bring them out of death and into new life. The Word heardmust be obeyed.
So what does it mean to be caught up as spiritual fish into Christ’s net and to become fishers of men?
We read at the conclusion of our Gospel that when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. (Ibid, 11) Our Gospel tells us that the Apostles became not only hearers of God’s Word but doers also, and doers because they became obedient to Christ. Forsaking all means doing what Christ the Word commands.Forsaking all means beginning to die to the old man and coming alive to the new. Our doing must include not fearing harm if we follow that which is good, since happy shall we be as we suffer for righteousness’ sake, not being troubled because we are sanctifying the Lord in our hearts. (1 Peter iii. 13,14)
In closing, let us remember that the Word of God 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 could have returned to fishing for fish to become rich. Instead, hearing of God’s Word in Jesus Christ drew them out of the deep waters of sin and death to become doers of the Word through obedience in Christ’s Net of salvation. We pray in our Collect today the course of this world might be so peaceably ordered so that we can embrace Christ the Word in all godly quietness. Today’s world is noisy with violence and sin. There isn’t much peace. We must, nevertheless, make time for that godly quietness that helps us to find ourselves as fish out of water in the presence of Christ the Word who will make us into fishers of men once again.
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)
Trinity tide 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 in our creation. Man was created to live in and through the Father alone, by obeying His Word, through the indwelling of the Spirit. But man can find God, know his Truth, and walk in His Way, only by way of that humility. Humility alone teaches us that we are lost and about to be found by Jesus the Good Shepherd.
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 of worth to God once again. To do so, we need to discover the humility that conquers the pride that makes us the children of Adam. Prior to the Fall, Adam possessed the virtue of humility. The virtue reveals what we know and how we can 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 forever. (St. Ambrose: Exposition of the Gospel)
St. Ambrose teaches us to be careful about holy things, the things that matter and lead to our salvation. He tells us to avoid conceit since an overinflated sense of self-satisfaction will inflate us with a pride that forgets God’s nature as our Creator and Redeemer. He tells us to be earnest in religion because we must pursue that humility that situates us under the mighty hand of God. The things of this world cannot save us. They are creatures and yield only impermanent satisfaction. We must set our mind’s vision and our heart’s affection on God’s desire to find and redeem us.
So, we must find ourselves to be in the company of those who are without conceit and pursue Jesus in earnest. Today, we read of the publicans and sinners who draw near to Jesus to hear Him (St. Luke xv. 1) because they have a greater need for what Jesus offers. They have been rejected by the religious people of their day. The publicans were Jewish tax-collectors working for the Roman overlords. They were judged as traitors by pious Jews. The sinners in Jesus’ time were marked out by the religious establishment, the pharisees and scribes, as notorious livers –drunkards, prostitutes, and lepers. They had little reason to be arrogant with conceit and thus draw near to Jesus to hear Him because He finds them and longs to save them. Jesus finds the publicans and sinners because they were ripe for conversion. They seemed most open to what moved Jesus because He did not condemn them but wanted to help them. They knew that they were lost and they knew that Jesus desired to find them.
But no sooner do we find Jesus communing with the publicans and sinners, than we find thatthe Pharisees and Scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. (St. Luke xv. 2) More often than not, religious people think that Christ is for other people, for the notorious livers that live on the outskirts of their goodness. They pride themselves in being right with God because they do good works and are self-satisfied and contented with the level of goodness they possess. Externally and visibly they give off the appearance of a goodness that they want neither questioned or challenged. Thus, they measure themselves in relation to others and conclude that they are good and others are not. We do this also. Listen to 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…
(The Seeds of Contemplation, pg. 33)
Such is the spiritual condition of those who cannot identify with today’s publicans and sinners. When men live in this way, they have lost all sense of their own sinfulness. They do not know that they are lost because they measure themselves not by Jesus but by others. They behave like the Scribes and Pharisees because they are filled with spiritual pride. Thinking that they are moving up in the world, they are really straying down and away from God like lost sheep. They forget that they are the sheep of God, always in danger of erring and straying from His ways. They ignore 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 broken, despised, abandoned, and forsaken by their fellow men can know and feel the need for God’s saving power. Jesus uses today’s two parables to show us the nature of our spiritual 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 being 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 itignorantly in unbelief. (1 Tim. i. 13) How often have we sinners fallen into sins that we thought were forms of goodness or remedies to an already too painful life? How often do we settle for a good that is less because have not believed that Jesus the Good Shepherd intends us to have so much more than the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees?
In addition, how often do we mistake our sin for lesser goods never realizing that we are precious sheep in the Heart of a Loving God who sends His Good Shepherd to find us? How often do we forget that He longs to find us because we are made in His Image and Likeness? How often have we thought that we have no value, meaning, or worth? How long is it before we discover that we are made to be a royal people whose very natures are minted in the treasury of a great King? How long is it before we discover that we 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 closest to His Kingdom because they know that they have erred and strayed foolishly from God’s ways. Jesus knows that they feel lost and that they sense that they have no true meaning and worth. He knows them and so lovingly moves out to find and redeem them. Their fellow men have ostracized and demeaned them. But now they find one who will do all that He can to find them and bring true value to their lives. He will enter into their dark sadness and loneliness. He will not stop searching for them even if it costs Him His own suffering and death. He will find them and save them even from the Cross of His Forgiveness. This Good Shepherd would lay down His life for His sheep. (St. John x. 15)
Are we publicans and sinners? We can discover their humility only when we realize that we are lost and need to be found. St. Bonaventure, the great 13th century Minister General of the Friars Minor, wrote this of his founder, the great St. Francis.
From [St. Francis’] entrance into religion even
unto the end he loved and cherished humility. Humility compelled
St. Francis to leave the world.
Humility drove him in beggar's garb through the streets of Assisi.
Because he was humble, he served the lepers. For the same reason,
when preaching he made public his sins. His humility caused him to
ask others to upbraid him for his faults.
St. Francis came from an upper-class merchant family in Assisi. He became a notable warrior for his city-state. He was taken prisoner and was held captive in prison for a year. In prison he became sick and his conversion began. At last he was returned to the comfort of his family home. Still he was sick in body, unsatisfied in soul, and restless in spirit. His family’s riches could not comfort and relieve him. He had to leave their world. So, he began to walk the streets of Assisi only to find in the gutters of the city the beggers and lepers whom the good Christians of Italy had forgotten and forsaken. There he found the lost sheep of the Jesus Christ. There he found those who had been judged to be without value. He who was lost found the lost. He who was without value found God’s treasure of great worth. In them, he saw God’s Image and Likeness. In all humility, he fell down before Jesus. In the ecstasy of joy, through his new friends Jesus had found him and began to redeem him. In the lepers, publicans, and sinners, he began to find the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees. Then, he repented and believed. They ministered to him and he ministered to them. Then, as G.K. Chesterton has said, expecting nothing, he found everything. Jesus the Good Shepherd had found His sheep. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (Ibid, 10) So, as we pray today’s Collect, let us likewise live out St. Peter’s teaching of humility by taking hold of Christ’s care for us in the power of the Trinity that the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
And so, we love Him because he first loved us. (1 John 4. 19) 19)
Trinity tide is all about the moral life rooted in the vision of truth that we see in God. Today I will speak about the friendship of God and man. Throughout the seasons of the liturgical year you and I have been illuminated progressively by the knowledge of God so that we might come to find friendship with Him. If Eastertide might be called the season of vision and knowledge, Trinity tide is one of moral activity. To know God through vision, as He reveals Himself in the historical life of Jesus Christ, is not enough. Vision is knowledge, but knowledge for the Christian is also Truth that bears fruit in the good life.
We find our vision of God in Jesus Christ. The knowledge of God in Jesus Christ is what we have been working through from Lent to Ascension Tide. We have come to the knowledge of what God thinks like, sounds like, and acts like in the Sacred Humanity of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. What we see in Jesus Christ is the Wisdom, Power, and Love of God the Father perfectly at work in the human life of Jesus. St. Paul tell us, For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich. (2 Cor. viii. 9) St. Paul hopes that we might find the knowledge or vision of God in His Son that [our] hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians ii. 2-4) St. Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ sets aside the treasure and plenitude of His Divine state in order to become poor for our sakes. The Wisdom, Power, and Love of God are the only treasure that ought to interest every earthly man. Jesus possesses this treasure forever as the only-begotten Son of the Father. He has always intended that it should be what moves us most in all of our lives. Adam was made to be moved and defined by this gift of invaluable worth. Jesus returns it to us by becoming poor in relation to Heaven so that we might become rich in the experience of everlasting joy and felicity because we can come to know and love God forever in His Kingdom. How does Jesus become poor? He takes on our frail, weak, suffering human nature. He takes on our sin and subjects Himself to it. He reveals how the Omnipotent Word of God made Flesh responds to sinful man’s attempt to mock it, deride it, torture it, and kill it in Man. He reveals how, as God’s Word in the Flesh, He will die to all earthly knowledge and covetousness to conquer it. He subjects Himself to His own Law when he said, What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (St. Matthew x. 27, 28)
In this morning’s Epistle, St. John reminds us that no man hath seen God at any time (1 John 4. 12). But he tells us also that God is love. (Ibid, 8) God is one who desires and longs for, seeks out and finds a common ground of friendship with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4. 10) So, we love Him because he first loved us. (1 John 4. 19) God is Love, and that Love is expressed in His Word. His Word is His Son. His Son not only creates, orders, defines, governs, beautifies, and harmonizes all of creation, but He also comes to all men whom He has made in order to redeem and reconcile them to Himself. To know this is to begin to see how the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ became poor for our sakes. St. John tells us that every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (Idem, 7,8) In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. (1 John 4. 9) And here is the operative difference between those who live naturally in and through the world and us. God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. The knowledge that we have and the truth which we confess is nothing short of new life, life in communion with our Heavenly Father through the Son by the real and present operation of the Holy Spirit. Our knowledge of Jesus Christ is meant to form a new moral character in our lives as we follow Jesus back to God the Father.
And yet we cannot have any of this until what we know that we must follow Jesus from poverty into the riches and treasures of His Kingdom. In other words, we must make an act of will that surrenders completely to Jesus Christ by forfeiting and foregoing all rights to ourselves. God is Love, and He loves us in and through His Son. This Love who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. (Philipians ii. 7,8) We can be like most men of the world, good enough, but loving and living only for the here and now. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. (1 John 4. 5) We can be like Dives - the rich man in today’s Gospel, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, (St. Luke xvi. 19) whose was rich in earthly things, lorded it over others, and cared little for that deeper Mercy and Love that stoops down to lift up the poor and needy of this world. Or if we are rich like those who are full of tongue and weak of mind (R.Hooker, E.P., i. viii. 2), we might be like Dives in another way - perhaps we count ourselves rich spiritually. We feast sumptuously on Christ’s Body and Blood each week, we pay our tithes and live fairly moral lives, and count ourselves blessed, hoping all the while that this might earn us our salvation!
Being like Dives or the rich man may mean that we are either material or spiritual hoarders. In this morning’s Gospel, Dives walked over Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. (Ibid, 20, 21) The literal interpretation of Dives’ moral character was that he was uncompassionate and parsimonious with his earthly treasure. The spiritual interpretation is that Dives could have cared less for the spiritual welfare of this poor beggar Lazarus who found love only from the dogs [who] came and licked his sores. (Ibid, 21) In either case Dives did not know God, love God, or love His neighbor. Friendship with God too great seemed too costly a price to pay for a man who was possessed with earthly treasure. So, in the end, his soul is parched and tormented forever because he rejected the knowledge of God and the love that it necessarily implies. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Ibid, 22,23) Dives might have known God, but his knowledge had not been converted into Love of God or his neighbor.
Unlike Lazarus, who had nothing here but longed for the more that only God can give, Dives is left with the dried fruit of a narcissistic arrogant self-love that rejects God’s offer of loving friendship with man. Had he received the Love of God in Jesus Christ, he would have emptied himself of his riches in order to stoop down and lift up those who were materially and spiritually destitute. St. John tells us this morning that If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 John 4. 20) If a man does not love his brother whom he has seen with his natural eyes, then he does not know God’s love for everyman. With Dives, we shall find ourselves in Hell forever where there is a great gulf fixed…an eternal separation, a yawning chasm, too deep to be filled up and too wide to be bridged over. (Trench, Parables…)
Today we come to know about the friendship of God and Man in Jesus the Word of God, who lives out the Summary of the Law: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, strength, and mind. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. In the Love of Jesus, we find the Father’s rich spiritual treasure come down from Heaven to all of us. This Love that became poor in the flesh for us alone can make us right with God and rich with His treasure. Through our knowledgeof God’s Love in Jesus Christ we must become poor, so poor that in Jesus we die to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Thus, we must know that if our neighbors are poor materially, they will be forever vexed with anxiety over earthly things -ironically enough, like Dives. Without the Love of God and neighbor, with Dives we shall find ourselves in a state of eternal spiritual poverty. And so in today’s Collect we pray, O God…because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy Grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed. As elucidated so beautifully in our Epistle and exhorted so plainly in our Gospel, let us share God’s love for us and love poor neighbor, welcoming him to join us in pursuit of Heaven’s treasure. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 St. John iv. 16)
As the briefest liturgical season in the Church Year, Ascension-tide 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. In the Ascension, Christ returns our human nature back to its origin with God the Father so we might begin again to obey God, honor God and, finally, glorify God. In the simplest of terms, Christ the Son of God, in a Resurrected and Glorified state, returns human life to communion with God the Father. Each thought, word, and deed, every motivation and inclination towards God are now reconciled with the Father. In turn, every act of Grace that enables us to love, obey, and serve God is given to us as Christ returns to us in the Holy Spirit.
Faithful man had been yearning to ascend back to God since the time of Israel’s primordial Fall. But he found himself 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) Sin had enslaved the ancient Jews; Man was unable to return to God what he had taken from him. What did man take from God? Man took the obedience he owed God. Man took the honor he owed God. Man took the potential glory that he was destined to share with God. And so the prophet cries out for the forgiveness of sins sufficient to return man to God. 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) Acknowledging his sin, and the collective wickedness of his people, the prophet faithfully cries out to God for deliverance and salvation. Israel may have unmade herself, but God can and will fashion her anew if only she lifts up her eyes unto the hills from whence cometh her help.
With Psalmist, the prophet is powerless to fight against spiritual powers that have the advantage over him. O help us against the enemy, for vain is the help is man. (Ps. lxiv. 12) So, his heart ascends up passionately within as he soars up to sing the song of faith. 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 spiritual lute and harp call him up into the song of praise and thanksgiving. He thanks God anticipatorily for what he believes and trusts shall shortly 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) Deliverance comes only from above. The glory that can be man’s reward once again must come from God’s right hand.
Christians believe that what Isaiah reached out and hoped for was the Incarnation of God’s right hand Man, even His own Son. What was desired from above 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 that was held in faith and embraced in hope then was made flesh and dwelt among us. (St. John i. 14) And yet the chief purpose of His Incarnation was that man’s human nature might once again become a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable unto God. (Romans xii. 1) Man was made to live above Himself, conformed to God’s will, and always to become clay in the hand of the potter.
But in Christ, we are not only called to become clay in the hand of the potter but also placed into his kiln. We are called not only to be refashioned but also to be redeemed. This cannot be done until Christ takes us into the fire of His sacrifice, the fire that destroys all sin and death. His suffering and death constitute the necessary first moments in man’s return to God. His suffering and death are the kiln in which the Potter is firing up the clay for new life through a Sacrifice that will begin on earth and ascend up 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 was always called by the Father into Ascending Sacrifice. Throughout the whole of His life, He suffered and died to Himself as He mounted and ascended in heart and soul back to God. Since the time of His Ascension, He has called all men to do the same through the Sacrifice that He shares with us. 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 His Ascension seat in Heaven, the Son of God sends His Spirit to lift up our hearts back to the Father, beginning here and now.
But before the Holy Spirit’s descending fiery love begins to enable us to be made one with the offering of our humanity back to the Father in Jesus Christ, we must find ourselves in Christ’s ascent back to the Father. Our eyes must follow diligently the flame of fiery love that lifts and carries Christ back to the Father. Bishop Westcott reminds us that we are meant to penetrate to 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…) Christ’s Ascension is what stands over and against all other things as high above all other things. True Sacrifice calls us away from the mundane and into the heavenly. Austin Farrer describes the movement nicely:
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.
In the ascending flame, our desire must tend upwards and burn towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire. We pray that the flame of our own sacrifice might become one with Christ’s so that the fire of God’s love might lift us into the Heaven of His new life. We pray we shall lift our hearts up unto the Lord because in the blazing fire of Heaven’s light we are beginning to see that the truest offering of man to God is found in Christ’s Ascending Sacrifice. Old earth-bound habits, customs, and ideals must be burnt up in the surpassing power of God’s Grace in Christ’s ascending heart. Christ, who now sits at God’s right hand, intercedes and pleads for us. Christ longs forever to share the Sacrifice of His Ascended Life with us so 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 returned all of creation to the Father. We must be therefore sober, and watchful unto prayer. (1 St. Peter iv. 7) Our minds must be drawn back to the same Jesus who has taught us in parables, astounded us with miracles, rebuked us in love, and called us forward to the Cross of His Passion. The life of Christ has always been one Sacrifice that Ascends back to the Father because man is made for God. We must have our conversation with Christ in Heaven, to love His appearing, and to be dissolved into His love. (Jenks, 352) We must pray 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) The poet would have the passion of Christ’s Ascending Love bring us through death, resurrection, and into Ascension Life.
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)
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 this Joyful 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 acts ofcompassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this was given to us that we might become habituated to what it takes to live in and through the Resurrected Christ.
And, yet, what is so helpful about the Church’s selection of readings for this Joyful Eastertide is that she does not pretend that this new life we seek is 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, and gentle herdsman who forever seeks out His lost sheep. And while this might be true in one way, in another way it tends to ignore the expectations that Christ has of us, once we have returned to the sheepfold.
For, Christ has demands and conditions for the sheep of His fold of the members of His Body, the Church. As we become His sheep, Jesus Christ and the Good Shepherd’s expectations of us become clearer.What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects of them 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 we surmise 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 it will bind them more surely to Jesus Christ and thus enable them to embrace the healing power of the Good Shepherd in their hearts and souls.
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 by 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 a pagan and so his chief interest in not with earthly liberation and social 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 wickedness 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 powerlessness and then fear in the face 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 shackled by other men. Here was he who was shackled and enslaved to his own fear, cowardice, and impotence. He responded to evil by retreating desperately into this protective cellar to protect himself. 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 terror and pusillanimity. 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 from the standpoint of the forgiveness of sins. Christ has forgiven Peter for abandoning and betraying Him. He calls him into the new life of Resurrection. So, he exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters also. 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 St. Peter 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 also. Both Peter and his hearers were slaves, but they are now invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection and the 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 emissaries and ambassadors in bonds to the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. What they can reveal is that they have been made free by Jesus Christ and are truly the 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 vengeance. True freedom is found in Jesus Christ. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy…(St. James iv. 12)
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 Christ’s transformative love must be embraced by all kinds of sinners.
St. Peter shows us that all men are the slaves of sin and 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 can be identified with the Slave who is employed solely and completely 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 Love can become a true Slave to their condition, bear its burden fully, and then break its chains through the power of innocence that becomes the forgiveness of their sins. But even beyond this, He longs to become our Slave even now. He is forever the Father’s willing and happy Slave. Now He longs to serve us as God’s slave. He, who is only and ever the obedient revealer of His Father’s Wisdom, Power, and Love, longs to infuse all men with the Spirit’s liberating Grace. He desires to feed us with God’s Goodness in order to free us from our slavery to sin. He alone is the Slave who knows our need and meets it. He is the Slave whose service alone can conquer and overcome our sinful condition. He alone is the Slave who must become our Master.
Jesus goes where He is sent. He comes to us. Will we allow this Slave to do His work for us? Like all good slaveholders, we don’t think we ought to pay a Slave. But if we would employ this Slave, we shall begin to see God’s love alive in His heart serving us. If we would keep this Slave, we must allow Him to help us where we need Him most. We need Him most in the hard work of conquering our sins. Funnily enough, we need this Slave to become our Master. Jesus is our Slave. The slaveholders of history should have seen Jesus in their earthly slaves. If they had, they would have freed them and thanked them for leading them to God through Jesus! Jesus alone is the true Slave and Master. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) Then we can begin to become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life, and ourselves becoming Slaves to others, following the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints.
For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own
eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and that do hold of his side do find it.
(Wisdom ii. 23-24)
Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead was not some immediate and clearly self-evident reality that exploded on to the pages of world history? What I mean is this: in your reading of the Resurrection narratives, has one very important thing jumped out at you and grabbed your attention? That thing being, that the Resurrection was neither expected nor anticipated by those nearest and dearest to Jesus –His Apostles and Disciples? We do not, after all, read that the followers of Jesus, following His crucifixion, spent their time waiting by His tomb for His much-anticipated Resurrection from the dead. Nor do we read that they were running about wondering with excitement if anyone had happened to see or bump into Him. Rather, we read that they were huddled together, behind closed and locked doors, fearing further vengeance that might await them at the hands of the Romans or the Jews on the one hand, and sorrowing bitterly over their own cowardice or betrayal of Jesus on the other. And this, even after Saints Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene had found that Jesus’ tomb was empty! No, they did not expect a Resurrection at all, nor even that such a thing could ever take place, though the burial tomb of their Master was empty. The Magdalene had run to the Apostles, and cried, they have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him. (St. John xx. 2) Saints Peter and John then ran to the tomb, found in it empty, and saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. (St. John xx. 6,7) St. John tells us that then and only then had they begun to believe the women’s accounts, but he tells us also that as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead…and so they went away again to their own homes. [(Ibid, 9) As Fulton Sheen has written, they had the facts and evidence of the Resurrection; but they did not yet understand its full meaning. (Life of Christ, p. 406) Further confirmation of their ignorance and skepticism is found once again when the Magdalene returns to the empty tomb. We read that she,
… saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (Ibid, 11-17)
Realizing who He was that stood before her, and longing to embrace him, perhaps to protect and then hurry Him off to a secret place where they could hurt Him no more, she is rebuked by the Risen Lord. Touch me not, he commands, for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (St. John xx. 17) Mary, clearly, understood neither the nature nor meaning of Jesus’ Risen nature. That Doubting Thomas would be invited by Jesus, a few days hence, to Reach hither [his] finger, and behold [His] hands; and reach hither [his] hand, and thrust it into [Jesus] side: and be not faithless, but believing, (Ibid, 27), did not make the situation any clearer. A Resurrected Jesus is one thing; what it means is quite another. So, it will take some time –just about forty days to be exact before the Apostles’ faith will come to understand the meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Within that period, He will reveal that He is both body and soul, flesh and spirit, transformed and transfigured to simultaneously eat bread with them on the one hand, and walk through locked doors on the other. He will also, more importantly, reveal that as God’s Word Made Flesh he will leave behind and breathe new life into His Body on earth, the Church. Through this Body, He will be with and in His friends through the Holy Ghost.
I tell you all of this for a few different reasons. First, we should notice that every account of the Resurrection of Christ is honestly recorded and passed on to us just as it happened. We do not find that Christ rose from the dead and that, all of a sudden, the Apostles and friends of Jesus were miraculously enabled to understand what had transpired. There was nothing in it of the miraculous draught of fishes or the feeding of the five thousand. We read rather of ordinary human beings, in every way like you and me, full of confusion, doubt, wonder, fear, and uncertainty. And as the authors of the story do not sugar-coat or romanticize men’s response to Christ’s death, so too they will not spare us their reaction to His rising. From beginning to end we read of an honest account of how His friends responded to His reappearance. In St. Mark’s Gospel we read, even, that [Jesus] appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. (St. Mark xvi. 14) In sum, the Apostles and transcribers of Christ’s Resurrection faithfully record every detail of an event which surprised, confounded, and eventually converted them –men, as it turns out, who slowly moved from unbelief to deep faith.
Second, the authors of the New Testament record something that happened to them, something that they could never have imagined, desired, or deserved. If they had been left to their own understandings and expectations, they would have treated Christ as dead and gone. We read in this morning’s Gospel, however, that, Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst... (St. John xx. 19) The Apostles are astounded, incredulous, confused, and more afraid than ever. How did He get into this room? The doors are sealed tight and locked.
Then this something begins to happen to them. Jesus says to his friends, Peace be unto you. (Ibid, 19) What is this that He is saying? Why does He say it? He speaks to His Apostles, those who abandoned Him, denied Him, foreswore Him, shrunk from Him, forsook Him? To us who now huddle cowardly together ‘fearing the Jews’ and not His God and Our God? (Easter Sermon 1609: Lancelot Andrewes) What is this that is happening? It is certainly nothing that the Apostles could have imagined or invented. In fact, it confounds all of their expectations. Certainly, something is happening to [them]. Something should happen to us also. But what is it? Peace be unto you, Jesus says. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. (Ibid, 20) As Bishop Andrewes remarks, with no hint of revenge, no verbal reproof, not even an unkind word, Jesus says to his Mother and Apostles, You and I are at peace. You and I are friends. Peace be unto you. (Ibid) Something is happening to them. He calls them friends. Peace be unto you. He repeats it twice! He has forgiven them and brings them His Peace. As my Father has sent me, even so send I you. (Ibid, 21) The forgiveness of sins is on the move; He has risen up and out of the grave and is moving out and abroad. Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins. The Apostles are forgiven and now are sent out to spread the Good News to all other men. The forgiveness of sinreconciles men to God. The Peace I now possess, I give be you. Now go, and give it to others. There is no Resurrection without the forgiveness of sins. Offer it always; if it is accepted it will grow. If it is rejected, love and forgive all the more. Forgiveness is the law of Love. It is commanded and not suggested.
The forgiveness of sins is the first key that unlocks the door to the mystery of the Resurrection. We said before that God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity, and that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise, they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery…(Wisdom ii. 23, iii. 1,2) Something is happening to followers of Jesus. The forgiveness of sins has Risen from the Dead and welcomes them into New Life. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 St. John v. 4,5) For, He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (Ibid, 11,12) To live in the Resurrected Christ means to have the Son; to have the Son means to be made new by the forgiveness of sins. To have the forgiveness of sins means to be touched by the Omnipotent Risen Love of God in the Flesh and to begin to find Peace with God and to spread that love and peace to the nations.
What has happened to the Apostles is that they realize that Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins, that the forgiveness of sins is alive and well and necessary for all men’s salvation. All faithful men who receive the forgiveness of sins are born again and anew into it. All men are made to receive it. For Love in the flesh rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. xiii. 6-8) If we receive this Love as the forgiveness of sins, we cannot help but extend it to all others. The is the Word of God’s Love made flesh, Jesus Christ, to be embraced in our hearts and souls. Then, with the poet, we shall sing:
Thus through all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me
As our dear Redeemer said:
This is the Wine and this the Bread.
(Broken Love: William Blake)
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above,
Where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on
Things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life
Is hid with Christ in God.
(Col. 3. 1-3)
There is something rather strange about our Easter Epistle, which was addressed by St. Paul to the Church at Colossae, a small Phrygian city in Asian Minor. Easter Sunday is the first of 40 days. Before He ascended back to the Father, during the period of 40 days, Christ appeared to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to the women, to James and all the Apostles, to some five hundred, and to Stephen prior to his martyrdom. So why does Mother Church have us reading an Epistle that seems to be all about the spiritual relationship that we have with Christ after Pentecost? In it, St. Paul speaks about our relationship with the hidden God. Your life is hid with Christ in God. We haven’t even begun our 40 days of getting used to the Resurrected Christ than the Church turns our minds upward and into the Heavenly realm!
So why are we reading about having our lives hid with Christ in God? For St. Paul, something has happened on the Day of Resurrection that forever changes our lives in relation to God the Father. Jesus Christ is not a mere soul or Spirit. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Article Four of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion states this: Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. St. Paul believes that Christ indeed died in a natural body and rose a spiritual body. What he means is that Christ raised up the body through which He lived and died and has transfigured it. His soul took back his body, and penetrated it through and through making it spiritual…this spiritual body is transparent, obedient to the Spirit, unconstrained and lightsome…the instrument of the Divine Saviour’s soul. (Mouroux, p. 89) The Risen Christ is, then, a glorified unity of body, soul, and spirit. He is the same Lord who died once for our sins. His Risen Body bears the wounds of His Crucifixion, reminding us that He has borne our sufferings, grief, and sin and brought them to death. But the same wounds remind us of His ongoing love for us, as this spiritual Body that He bears will expand and deepen to include us in His new Resurrected life. But even during the 40 days of His Resurrection He begins to call believers into the new Body that He will share with all who will follow Him. This Body has been raised up with the Father’s Blessing and the Spirit’s power. This spiritual Body is in more than one place at one time. Peter sees Him and then James does also. Magdalene has seen Him and so too have the men walking on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus’ Body is already spiritually greater than what our earthly senses can ever imagine experiencing. It is of such a nature that will ensure that our lives [can be] hid with Christ in God.
Of course, it takes time for the Apostles to realize what is going on. The 40 days are necessary. But in that time what they come to realize is that Christ is calling them to become one with Him in a new way. Christ is now ready to share Himself with them in the way that has enabled Him to conquer sin, death, and Satan and to open to them the Gates of Everlasting Life.
So how can our can our lives be hid with Christ in God? St. Paul reminds us in another place that 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. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin: but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. vi. 9.) Christ Jesus our Saviour is Risen from the dead. He invites us into that life that is dead to sin. Jesus died at the hands of sinful men and their sin. But He died being dead unto sin. Sin had no claim or power over Him. Christ conquered sin through His obedience to God the Father and because He has always been alive unto God. (Idem) In the Resurrection, Jesus Christ invites us to begin to participate in His obedience to the Father. Christ, even in death, was alive unto God. We were not since with the Jews and Romans and all sinners in all ages, we have killed God’s Word in the flesh -the flesh of Jesus Christ and in our own flesh. We have been dead but now Christ invites us into the New Life that He reconstitutes for us following His crucifixion. So now, we must seek those things which are above. Not above and beyond our reach, but above and beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings, above and beyond what we desire or deserve, above and beyond what we could do for ourselves. And yet not above and beyond what God’s love can and will do for us as Heaven reaches down to earth to lift us up back up into Heaven. Not above and beyond God’s healing touch, His quickening spirit, His ever-present and all-powerful presence, even here and now. But yes, above and within the heart of Jesus, whose Glorified Body and Being are with the Father and also with us at all times and in all places. Yes, above and within Jesus Christ Himself, in whom every aspect of our lives can become a new occasion for our rising up and out of ourselves, mortifying [our] members which are upon earth; [up and out of] our uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…(Col. iii. 5) In our bodies, because in His Risen and Glorified Body because Christ is always in God.In our souls, because in His Risen and Glorified Soul, He (is) in us, and we (are) in Him. Christ is risen from the dead. Sin is finished, death is finished, Satan is finished, if only we shall find our new lives in Him. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3)
And how does He allow us to continue to be hid with Christ in God? Jesus says I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (St. John vi. 51) As He reveals and manifests the truth of His Glorified Flesh on this Easter Sunday, we remember that Christ gives Himself to us as the Bread of Life. Christ’s life is to do the will of the Father. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we believe that we shall begin to partake of that Bread of Life that gives us the power to overcome sin, death, and Satan. Through this Sacrament we come into Communion with Jesus. The Real Presence that He shared with the Apostles on this Day of Resurrection He shares with us also. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we begin to possess eternal life. (1 Cor. xi. 26) Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. (St. John vi. 54-57)
When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we can reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) Being alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord means that our affections, our desires, and our passions shall been set on things above and not things of the earth. Being fed, we can ask the Father to give us His Heavenly Love that forever moves Jesus Christ the Son to free us from all sin and death through the Holy Spirit. Being fed, we can know that Jesus indwells our hearts and souls and is ready at hand to help us in every time of need. The love of God in the Heart of Jesus Christ leads captivity captive (Ephesians iv. 8). We are no longer to live in bondage to sin, death, and Satan. We are assured that our lives are hid with Christ in God because He has overcome them, has set us free, and holds us in His heart in Heaven, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us! (Hebrews vii. 25) Jesus makes intercession for us with the Father in Heaven. He does so from the core of our hearts and souls, if only we believe and receive Him!
On this Day of our New Life, as creatures Resurrected from the Dead, let us begin to live freely and thankfully. On this day may true joy fill our hearts. Let us, therefore, thank and praise our Saviour Jesus Christ this morning for dying for us and for rising for us, and for assuring us that our lives are Hid in Him with God. Let us close by ending with the song of the poet:
MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrow’d hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live forever in felicity!
And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Edmund Spenser “Easter Sonnet”.
Forgiveness of sin must deal with sin as it affects the human personality.
It is not enough that the debt should be paid, the trespass forgiven,
and the transgression pardoned; the debtor, the trespasser, the
transgressor must be freed from that within him that is the source of
his evil actions, and his forgiveness is not complete until he has
obtained this freedom and lives in the liberty of righteousness.
(The Christian Year in the Times of London, p. 92)
So writes the anonymous author of the Sunday Sermons written for The Times of London in 1930. I believe that the thoughts expressed here are particularly helpful, I think, for those of us who find ourselves trying to be Christians on this Good Friday. Today we come to the Cross and witness the suffering death of the Saviour of the world, the Son of God, Jesus Christ and we are given the opportunity to reflect upon what it all means for each and every one of us. Or, to put it another way, the facts of Christ’s offering, sacrificial death, and atonement must belong to us and we must belong to it all if we hope to be saved. The Cross is the place where the Son of God defeats sin, death, and Satan for us. The Cross is the place where God in Man recreates us all as the New Adam offers the New Pattern of human existence to all who would follow Him home to God. But our place in this scheme of salvation and redemption involves the forgiveness of sins.
And as our writer reminds us, the forgiveness of sins is really as good as useless unless it is something that is being received always by earnest pilgrims who desire to journey out of sin and wickedness and into virtue and holiness. Now, these days, to most people sin and wickedness are outdated categories that reveal an obsession with morbid, the grim, the gruesome, and the pessimistic, or what combine to lead only to melancholy and sadness. But for the Christian the discovery of sin and wickedness within the soul reveals the true state and character of man’s life without God. Anu sane searcher or seeker who has the courage to do so, looks within himself to find those things that stand between himself and God. What the Christian finds are those persistently present selfish and narcissistic hindrances, limitations, shortcomings, and temptations that war against the good of the soul. Christ’s death has conquered these sins. Christ’s death is now the seedbed of the righteousness that can grow up in their place. The forgiveness of sins for the Christian is the bedrock of hope, the impetus for change, and the catalyst for a better life that can begin here and now and end in eternal friendship with God. That we are forgiven because Jesus Christ died for us, once and for all, reveals to us that God loves us with a love that longs to love us out of sin. When we receive that love, we shall begin to love Him with a love that carries us into His Kingdom. The Love is all God’s. It is ours for the accepting or the rejecting. So the forgiveness of sins for the Christian is the beginning of the new life, the vita nuova, as Dante terms it, where existence here and now becomes the occasion and opportunity for conversion and transformation, and for sanctification and redemption.
As we reflect upon the forgiveness of sins made flesh in Jesus Christ, let us begin to allow its truest force, power, and efficacy hold a mighty sway over our souls and bodies. Let us see that sin attempted to kill God’s truth, beauty, and goodness, His wisdom, power, and love in the flesh of Jesus Christ long ago. Let us see also that sin attempts to kill the same in us today. But the forgiveness of sins provides us with a way into the new life. For with the forgiveness of sins we are encouraged to discover freedom from the true origin and cause of evil within us. To be sure, this does not happen overnight. God knows this and is patient and longsuffering as we discover the evil and offer it up to him for death and annihilation. We must begin with the sins that are most obvious, accessible, and discernible to our senses. These are what we find externally and visibly in words and works, reactions and responses, or what are expressed instinctively and impulsively. But then, with the light of the Holy Spirit, we can trace them back to their causes and reasons. What moves us to say and do what we say and do find their instigation and inspiration within our souls. Something other than God’s Holy Spirit grips, holds, and defines what comes out of our mouths and into our lives. From these inner birds of prey that would devour our spiritual desire, from these inner unclean beasts that would trample down the plantation of God’s Grace in our hearts, we seek freedom. (B. Jenks) And with the help of God’s Grace, because He is always forgiving us through His Son, if we persevere and persist in the pursuit of God’s love, we shall find freedom in that holiness and righteousness that leads to His kingdom.
We thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has died to sin, death, and Satan for us. Today, we thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has died to himself in order to become the one full, complete, perfect sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Today, we thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has brought our old man, our old human nature, our old Adam to death, that we might begin to become very members incorporate in the life of the New Man, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, who will conquer all manner sin and death in our lives. The forgiveness of sins has been made flesh for us on Calvary’s Tree of New Life. Let us receive this forgiveness of sins so that the hard work of redemption and perfection in us might begin, and that we may no longer overcome evil with evil, but evil with goodness, the goodness of God that longs to bring us from death into life.
Today, Jesus invites us into His death. We pray that the all sufficient merits of Christ’s death might be imparted to us as we receive the Sacrament reserved from last evening’s service. We pray that today we may participate in the meritorious effects of Christ’s death and might thereby find the seed of God’s Omnipotent Love planted in our hearts. That seed will grow, expand, and rise up with Jesus on the Morn of the Glorious Resurrection.
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me,
except it were given thee from above:
therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
(St. John xix. 11)
Good Friday is all about the best and the worst that man can do to God and his fellow man. I say that man can do, and what I mean is what he can do without God’s Grace and eternal love making it something different. Think about it. The best that the ancient Romans thought that they could do was to build a human city based on principles and ideas which could imitate what they knew of God. So what they came up with a human translation of God’s law and order that could civilize and ensure peace and prosperity for the human world. The Romans thought that they had come up with the best version of Plato’s Republic that man’s wisdom could create. And over and against them, the Jews basically came up with the same solution. What the Romans discovered about God through science and philosophy, the Jews found through Revelation. In both cases, each group learned that man could come closest to God through the formulation and administration of law and order. The Romans thought that this law was to be enforced best through Caesar, while the Jews claimed that their chief priests and elders were better equipped to administer it. For both, God was so radically unlike man, so perfectly set over and against a frail and uncertain world, that the best way for man to imitate God was to impose order and discipline on otherwise chaotic, ungovernable, immature, and unenlightened peoples.
But what happens if two interpretations of the same basic law come into conflict? In other words, what happens if Caesar’s law and the law of the Jews find themselves at odds with one another? Well, either one triumphs over the other, or the two find a common cause. The latter pertains to today’s decision to crucify Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate is determined to maintain the Roman Peace, and so out of fear, he will allow Jesus Christ to be crucified. The Jews will demand Jesus’ crucifixion out of envy and jealousy for one who claims that their Law is powerless. In both cases, God is kept at a safe distance, translated and diluted into human law and its expectations of good and evil, This is much safer than allowing One to live who claims to be God’s Word made flesh and dwells among us.
Yet what we must realize is that the best that man can do is the best that fallen man or sinful man can do. What the Romans discovered and what the ancient Jews received was born out of sinful man’s alienation and exile from God. And the worst thing that sin can do is to settle for an earthly peace because it has failed to hope in God’s Heavenly Solution! So the worst that sinful man can do is the best that he can do if he surrenders to his fallen nature. This is why Jesus says to Pilate that he would have no power or authority to torture and kill him if this power had not been given to him from God.Pilate will be, unknown to himself, an unwitting instrument in the salvation of the world. So too will the Jewish chief priests and elders. Their sins are no less sins, but they will reveal to the world both the nature of sin and God’s response to it in Jesus Christ’s suffering and death. Sin at its worst mocks, derides, taunts, mocks, provokes, tempts, tortures and tries to beat God’s Word of love out of the world he made, and most specifically out of human flesh through which He has come to redeem it. The true sin is to despair of God’s power to speak his Word through the heart of Jesus Christ. And Jesus accepts that this is the best that sinful man can do. And far from taking this best and making it worse, He makes it better. Sinful man will do his best and, in the end, he will find that his best must end in death.
And yet even here the best that ends in death is already becoming something that smacks much more of life and love. The Author of The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that the law is a shadow of good things to come. Roman Law and Jewish Law, though unbeknownst to their enforcers, comprise the shadow of a good thing that is coming to pass before our very eyes this day. Jesus takes every element that works its way into His unjust and unmerited death and makes it good. His death will become good, and everyone and everything that has worked against His life will be counted as necessary and good for the salvation of the whole world. For both then and now Jesus of Nazareth refuses to see this day as anything but Good. The old Romans and Jews thought that they had to sacrifice bulls and goats repeatedly to placate the gods or God respectively. That they had to keep repeating them shows us that their value was temporary and impermanent. Jesus speaks to His Father and says: Sacrifice and Offering thou wouldest not, but a Body thou has prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God. (Hebrews x: 5-7) On this day he will defy the arrogance of man’s philosophical conclusion that God is divided from man and man from God, or that God is limited and so is man. On this day he overcomes all division between God and man through the Body of His Death. On this day Jesus shows us that man may reject God the Father, but God the Father never rejects man. So, the Word of the Father’s Love persists to the very end, alive in the heart of the Crucified One, who from throne of his Cross blesses, sanctifies, and consecrates sin, suffering, and death into the incessant flow of God’s desire for man’s salvation. He blesses man’s rejection of God’s Word of Love in His heart. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 24) He welcomes the repentant sinner and criminal, forgives him, and says Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) He says to the human instruments of sin and death, I love you, I made you, bless you, repent and believe, our journey continues. Identifying with the near desperation and despair of man who thinks he is loveless, friendless, and without hope, as God’s love always does, He even cries, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) God’s Word of Love, in the heart of Jesus, reaches out to touch and redeem the pain, agony, and suffering of all men who do not yet know God. He is indeed dying, but still He is loving and giving. He says to His heart-broken, confused, tortured Mother, held in the arms of the disciple whom he loved…Woman behold thy Son.(St. John xix. 26) And then to John the disciple, Behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 27) To both he says, continue to follow me; behold I make all things new. (Rev. xxi. 5) In the last moments of His earthly life, He whispers, I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) He was given a sip of Roman wine, He drank it, no doubt most grateful to the Roman soldier who offered it. One last sip of the wine He had, after all, made, and which was another good thing that He would bless into the service of His needful agony, pain, and suffering death!
So Jesus will give up the ghost, He will die. It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit. (St. Luke xxiii. 46) St. Mark and St. Matthew tell us that a pagan centurion, perhaps the one who offered Jesus the wine, or the one who lunged a spear through his side to ensure that He was dead, transfixed and beginning to be transformed, confesses, Truly this was the Son of God (St. Matthew xxvii. 54; St. Mark xv. 39) To be sure there was death. But in the midst of the death there was not only a persistent life, but divine compassion, supernatural mercy, godly kindness, and the kind of love that had been lifted up, that stood above, that towered over anything the world had known before, during, or would find after this day was done.
Jesus dies by the which we are sanctified through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Ibid, 10) Jesus will rise. Jesus will ascend. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. And He will not stop there. He sends to us the Holy Ghost that He might live on in us and we in Him. Whereof the Holy Ghost is also a witness to us; for after that He had said before, This is the Covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my Law into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities I will remember no more. (Ibid, 16)
The Law is made Good. The Law is now God’s Holiness and Righteousness which shall be put into our hearts. The Law demands no sacrifices. The Law is written into our hearts with the Blood of Jesus.
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
The prophet urges us to return to the God of our salvation today. God is jealous over His people, Jews and Gentiles alike, for He has made them and they are His own. God is a God of justice and righteousness. He comes to His people and if His people depart from them he punishes, disciplines, and corrects them. Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; He hath smitten, and he will bind us up. (Hosea vi. 1) His medicine is difficult to digest. The flesh of His only-begotten Son has been torn in order to heal us. He smites the Shepherd and the Sheep are scattered. But He will draw us into His sheepfold again. He will bind up the wounds of our sinful state once we confess our guilt. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. He will begin to awaken us out of our sinful death in order to make us alive once again. He shall raise us up in Jesus and we shall live in His sight once again. Tonight, we shall be buried. But beyond this night of death we shall have life, and have it more abundantly.
Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.
Not only shall we live but the nature and quality of our lives shall be transformed. He shall come to us like the rising Sun intent upon cultivating and growing the seed of His Word in the soil of our souls. The rays of His sun shall generate new life in us. But they shall combine with the rains that germinate and fructify the seed that is made to be perfected. So He shall perfect His image and likeness in us. The latter rain brings us into death to sin. The former rain is the original rain of the Creation now made new in the coming times of Pentecost.
And despite this truth, God cries out unto us this night because of our insouciance and negligence:
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.
Why do we backslide so continuously? Why do we fail to multiply the talents that God has given to us and rather bury them so that they might remain dead? Why do we fail to labor while it is light? Why is seed of God’s Word choked in the soil of our soils by the cares and riches of this world? God plants a good seed in us and yet we neglect, ignore, and leave it to perish. We live in an age of too much material comfort and ease. We are smothered by the false gods of mammon.
We say that we do not love money, but we are absolutely dependent upon it in ways that would shock and appall our forefathers.
Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and my judgments are as the light that goeth forth.
We must begin to awaken to ourselves. Some years ago, Sidney Lanier Wrote had this for the famous men of all times:
Full bright ye shine, insuperable stars;
Yet, if a man look hard upon you, none
With total lustre blazeth, no, not one
But hath some heinous freckle of the flesh
Upon his shining cheek, not one but winks
His ray, opaqued with intermittent mist
Of defect; yea, you masters all must ask
Some sweet forgiveness, which we leap to give,
We lovers of you, heavenly-glad to meet
Your largesse so with love, and interplight
Your geniuses with our mortalities.
Most men know, deep down, that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness of their sins. No man blazes with a total lustre. Every man has some heinous freckle upon his shining cheek. The mist of defect characterizes us all. Ony arrogance and insecurity prevent man’s admission of it. We must pray that their souls will be broken open and felt truly. We must pray for our own self-conscious unholiness. We must pray that we too will need God, need His Son, and need His Son’s Death so that we might find the new life that leads home to our Heavenly Father.
If we shall not go to Christ’s cross to die and be made alive, we shall have judged that Christ is not God’s Word made Flesh who shall judge us. Moses and the prophets shall condemn us with God’s Word.
If we not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will we be persuaded though one rose from the dead. For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.
Jesus Christ is God’s Wisdom and Love for us made flesh. God desires our salvation and reconciliation with Himself. Jesus the Son knows what He must willingly do to make this possibility real for all of us. To discover the need for the forgiveness of sins will bring us into the reception of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Knowledge of God yields confession of our sin and guilt.
Our good works avail us nothing. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to His own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Is. liii. 6) But Jesus knows this very fact. This is why He dies for us. He takes on our sin and even faces it in the innermost reaches of His Being. He brings it and death to death. He conquers Satan and forever relegates him to the realm of absurdity and meaninglessness…if only we shall accept this gift of Christ’s loving death. Jesus dies for us. And yet He lives. The pattern and model of the way back to the Father begins today, in death, the One Death, Jesus Christ’s Death. This is the day on which Death is transformed and redeemed. Death now is a moment. Death is a moment, in Jesus, on the way back to God’s Kingdom.
He riseth up from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel and girded himself.
Tonight you and I are invited to the last supper of Christ. With the Apostles, we move into a realm that is fraught with the fear and trembling of Jesus’ friends, who do not understand the meaning of it all and what will come next. For the Apostles have been following Jesus for some three years, and they have experienced the hand of God extended to them and others through the life of Jesus. In a sense there was so much to be thankful for, so many wonders and miracles, so many beautiful teachings and sayings, so much that seemed so very positive. But there were also the ominous words of gloom impending, frightful prophecies, and terror striking promises. Perhaps if the Apostles were anything like you and me they might have forgotten or chosen to ignore the negative in Jesus –what was not yet known, and so misunderstood. Surely what was coming would not be all that bad. It couldn’t be as grim as He suggested. Perhaps Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, would be able to work some miracle and wonder in order to lessen the blunt of the prophesied gloom.
But what we observe tonight cannot be disconnected or severed from the complete and total fabric which we call the life of Jesus Christ. The signs and the wonders had been performed in order to point to deeper faith in a more certain union with God that is about to unfold before our very eyes. The power of God is with and in Jesus. It has generated all goodness and must endure all evil. The whole fabric of Jesus’ life- the meaning of His presence, begins to draw us towards its fullest manifestation in the Cross of Good Friday. Jesus and the Father are always in union and Communion. He has been tempted to reject his Father’s will and way, but thus far has rejected all of its illusory power. God’s Grace defines every moment of Jesus’ mission. God’s desire will unfold in every act of His free choosing. The Father desires the Son, and the Son desires, always, to please the Father. The intention of the two is one passion for man’s redemption. Through Jesus, God has spoken his words of promise. Through Jesus, God has revealed His work of salvation. Through Jesus, God is never far away and distant, but rather always present, with patience and determination, fulfilling his Word. His power in Jesus has opened the eyes of the blind, unloosed the tongues of the dumb and mute, freed the lame legs of crippled men to walk. His wisdom has been expressed in parables and illustrations that drew men deeper into the meaning of His Word. God’s omnipresence has never been denied by Jesus, and that reality persists into the drama of this night.
Tonight’s celebration marks the Last Supper that Jesus will share with His Apostles and us. Christ has eaten a Passover supper with his friends. He has broken bread and poured out wine, offered it to his friends, and promised that they would become His Body and his Blood. What was meant on that night was hidden and unclear to the Apostles. The understanding and meaning must come later. What Jesus did and said, He offered as a friend and brother. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (St. John xv. 14, 15)
Bread is broken; wine is poured out. Tomorrow a Body will be broken and Blood will be shared. The two will not be, in the end, divided, but one will be made into the other as God’s love in Christ expands. Tonight the Body –soon to be broken into and pierced, stoops down to wash and to cleanse the dirty feet of His disciples. With God always present, Christ Jesus reveals to us that God has forever stooped down from Heaven to wash, cleanse, and heal His people. God in Jesus Christ is the servant of His friends, the one who stoops down from the Heaven of his Father to wash, cleanse, and save. In the today of tonight’s Gospel, Jesus waits upon His friends. Tomorrow, He will do the same, in another form. He is the servant who comes to wash and to cleanse, today with water and wine, and tomorrow with blood. Both will be one. We are washed through water and blood. We are purified through Baptism and Eucharist. The today and tomorrow of God with us and for us, God near to us in Jesus, is but one revelation coming from the loving heart of God and shown forth in the real human life of Jesus Christ. Tonight seems rather ominous. Tomorrow will be disturbing and yet wholly Good!
But there is more that we should see and grasp as we move through the drama of the Last Supper and Good Friday. What Jesus does is who He is. Jesus is the Desire and Love of God the Father made flesh. What Jesus does and who He is, is what He intends for us to become. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet…These things I command you, that ye love one another. (St. John xiii. 14, xv. 17) He will give us bread and wine and will wash men’s dirty feet. He will give us His Body and Blood and will wash the dirty feet of our souls. He must do this, that we might be strengthened and nourished, and then transformed and redeemed by His presence in the inner man. Too many Christiansforget that they need the Body and Blood of Jesus as food for men wayfaring en route to Heaven!
On this night we share in the Apostles’ unknowing and wonder. We do not yet know and have what Christ will give to us- either in fact or in its true meaning. He does what he does, and we have no part of him if he does it not. Jesus comes to wash our feet, and, with Peter, we react with horrified surprise and proud resistance. Lord, thou shalt never wash my feet. (St. John xiii. 8) Our instinct thinks it wrong that God the Almighty should stoop down, serve, and wash us. We sense that the Holy One of God should never be contaminated by our sinfulness. God is high, we are low; the Master should never condescend to the slave. Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. (St. Luke v. 8) Jesus answers, If I do not wash thee, thou hast no part with me. (Ibid) In the today of God’s nearness we learn that God stoops down from heaven to wash our dirty feet, the dirty feet of our souls.
The God of this today, is the very God who has never left, forsaken, or abandoned his people. The God of today is approaching, one who knocks at the doors of our souls and bodies in order to make all things new. The God of today is the God we need always more than all else. If He does not wash us, if He does not die for us, if He does not rise for us, then we can have no part in the salvation that he offers.
But we do need him. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today for us is seen in Jesus who washes the disciples’ feet. The outward and visible sign of God’s today for us is seen in Jesus who dies for His friends. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Mark x. 45) Will we allow Jesus to wash and to cleanse us? Will we realize that God’s stooping down in Jesus Christ is nothing short of bearing our burden, taking on our sinful predicament and condition? Will we begin to understand that God alone in Jesus Christ can assume and endure our sinful pride, envy, wrath, murder, sloth, indifference, greed, lust, and so forth? Will our eyes be opened to the fact that our sin has willed His death? For sin is nothing other than the will to silence and kill God’s Word and Will in time and space, to refuse His presence, to resist His power, to banish His love, to ignore His wisdom. Sin, in other words, refuses to imagine that every man’s heart can be softened, his life changed, a sinner can be saved, and an exile welcomed home as a long-lost, prodigal son. Will we begin to realize that God in Christ must die to sin and at the hands of sin, die for sin, and in the miraculous operation of the Divine Omnipotence bring sin, death, and Satan to an end once and for all? Will we begin to see that His death is the only pure and perfect posture of self-abnegation, humility, and obedience that can conquer sin with the Father’s power in Jesus’ human heart? Will we start to realize that He invites us into His death so that the Redemptive Power might take root between the bone and the marrow?
Many rejected God in Jesus Christ long ago and they do so today. And, yet, Jesus still desires as the Desire of God’s Word and in the Spirit of the Father’s Love. Tomorrow, this same Lord, in His own body hanging upon a tree, will say this: I love you and forgive you. Come follow me. I die and you will die. I will rise and so shall you. Come follow me. You can become Members of My Body. My Spirit will enliven and quicken you. My life and my love I offer to you, always and everywhere, ever broadening, ever expanding. God’s love for you in me. Your love for God in me. Come follow me, and you shall find true life. Come follow me, and you shall find true love. Come follow me, and you shall find your true home and destiny, ‘ a kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (St. Matthew xxv. 34) Come follow me, and through you, others will follow as they find the One Love, the One Wisdom,and the One Power that forever and forever ‘makes all things new.’
And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
There is a good deal of quiet that is meant to surround us as a response to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Son of God during Holy Week. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in quiet stillness. If we approach this time with the quiet concentration that it commands, we will, no doubt, find that it assaults and confounds our human reason, as it wrenches our hearts from the fulfillment of their usual desires. But if we sustain the stillness, and with a silent mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, a reassuring blanket of divine quiet might begin to warm the soul this week, enveloping it with the Word that desires to be made flesh in us so that we might journey with Jesus from death to new life.
In the lections for today, we already begin to observe the truth that will emerge from the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of commotion. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, wants a different kind of quiet than what we are in search of. He is more than a little bit irritated by the chaos and confusion caused by Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into Jerusalem on what should have been just another Friday afternoon in a relatively insignificant outpost of Caesar’s Empire. He seems to be what one might imagine a Roman governor should be in one of the provinces of Augustus Caesar’s expansive Empire -prudent, Stoical, but firm. He does not seem to be impressed by the religion of the local Jewish Aristocracy, which has stirred up the people of Jerusalem against this Jesus of Nazareth. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian, that has successfully brought law, order, and prosperity to the then civilized world. Earthly calm and peace comprise his vocation. The chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. (St. Matthew xxvii. 1) The Jews have told Pilate, according to St. Luke that they had found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. (St. Luke xxiii. 2) Pilate needs just cause. He asks Jesus, Art thou the King of the Jews? (Ibid, 11) Jesus answers, So you say. (Ibid, 12) Pilate is wholly skeptical. If the accused has not violated the law or given just cause for unrest, he is bound by Roman Law to release him. So, he will aim at reestablishing order. In the service of Roman Law, he will allow the Jews to judge Christ themselves, or send Him to Herod. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Needless to say, none of this works. To complicate matters, another kind of deafening quiet and silence is found in this Jesus of Nazareth. It will be so unsettling that Pilate marvels greatly. (Ibid, 14) For Pilate knows that out of envy the Jews have delivered Jesus up. And their jealousy threatens the Pax Romana. The city’s peace must be maintained. Caesar’s rule cannot be questioned. Pilate’s wife will tell him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19) and in a sense, he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus crucified. Pilate demands quiet and then finds himself drawn into the noisome conflict: Why, what evil hath he done?(Ibid, 23) Pilate will exclaim. The Jews are not interested in facts. When a people hates a man they will invent all manner of exaggerated malicious lies to destroy him. They want blood. Let Him be crucified, they cry. So, in response to that determined envy that promises only to breed further chaos and anarchy, we shall read that, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (Ibid, 24) The Pax Romana is asserted. The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25)
Pilate will believe that he has rid the world of Jesus Christ for political expedience. The Jews’ hatred of Him will be quenched. Even the disappearance of His Apostles into hiding seems promising for the silence and stillness of the Roman Peace. The problem seems to have been solved quickly and satisfactorily. The greater silence and stillness in Christ’s heart that ensure His obedience to the Father have not, as yet, startled and triggered others into consciousness of what is really happening. From the firm core or His established determination, His mission and meaning have not yet found fertile ground in men’s souls. So, the external chaos of this week will drive them into the world of madness, fear, and desperation. Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew 26.31) God’s own Good Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, it would appear, is rejected on a number of different levels, and for a variety of reasons. Men always find ample justification for doing away with and killing Jesus Christ.
But for a few others, the solid quiet of the dying Son of God will begin to move the ground of their souls. From the still and silent center of His obedience to the Father, this Jesus of Nazareth will begin to turn a world full of lunatics on its head. Christ the Word will be heard and heeded, slowly, even imperceptibly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now as the world and its words assault and kill the human Jesus, the Word of God persists and endures in order to speak from the quiet of His dying heart. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ is always dying to Himself and coming alive to the Father for the world. He did not cease to do so, especially when He will be most tempted to through His earthly suffering and death. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers himself to God and man by laying down His life in death so that all might live.
This morning, with St. Paul, we remember that though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ’s silence and stillness in suffering and death are the centrifugal points around which His mission of service is perfected. Here, He does not desperately pry into the secrets of His Father’s will and plan. He is content to humbly obey. Rather, He prefers to die so that the Father’s will might be realized in Him for all other men. He will become the new Man, the Second Adam, who once again is happily free because, in silence and stillness, He joyfully obeys and fulfills the Father’s desire. He knows that only from that quiet center of His heart can He die to Himself so that the Father’s plan and purpose will emerge into new life.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. The world around us is certainly stirred up. But the Word of God in Jesus Christ looks at us with the same quiet determination to share with us the merits of His obedience to the Father. Pilate marveled, the world around us marvels, but we must remain constant and determined. We are going up to the Cross, together, come what may. If we should become sick on our journey up to Jesus’ Cross, so be it. We have opportunity to gather together each day of this Holy Week to do what the Church has always done, especially during times of plague, pestilence, and warfare. To be sure, we are not throwing caution to the wind. Rather, we take our precautions and come together to partake of that food and medicine that, of all things, is sure to see us through this life and on to the next with healthy souls. The Body and Blood of Jesus are far more powerful than any disease or threat…if only we believe.
On this Palm Sunday, we hear Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Next, we hear, Crucify Him, Crucify Him. In the quiet of today, let us remember that Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53. 4-6)
Some years back Fulton Sheen described the fear that prevented Pilate from believing Jesus. He wrote:
“The terror of Tiberius [Caesar] seemed more real to Pilate than the denying of justice to Christ. But in the end, those who fear men rather than God lose that which they hoped men would preserve for them. Pilate was later deposed by the Roman Emperor on a complaint by the Jews — another instance of men being punished by the very instruments in which they confided.”
The terror of this so-called pandemic seems more real to most men than denying justice to Jesus or giving Him His due. What is due to Him is our obedience and faith and love. We are called to do what He has asked us to do. We are called to come together, to give thanks, break bread and pour out wine. We believe that in the quiet of this Holy Communion we shall eat His Body and drink His Blood. We believe that we need His Body and His Blood more than bodily health and earthly cures. We believe that from His quiet stillness, He lovingly longs to give this to us as the only medicine that can cure us of what most ails us. What most ails us is sin. And if we are not cured of that, then we shall be so sick that we might very well go right into Hell, Chinese Flu or not. No Cross, No Crown.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle men in all ages. There is something about human nature that is resistant to God and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or casually. Think about it. The majority of men in our own time are very earthly minded. They don’t seem to be the least bit interested in the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of God and appear rather smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently, they’ve got it all figured out and they don’t need to know more. Or, they use arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fears of confronting themselves and then inconveniently finding God. If such men go on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves them, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of the feeling that neither they or this life is really all that bad. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than a surrender, where the ideals of youthful inspiration to pursue greatness have long since vanished, since the norms and ideals that demand labor and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence would disrupt an adequately agreeable and comfortable life.
Of course, as we learn in Passion Tide, Jesus Christ meets all manner of resistance to His mission to us precisely because of this human hardness to the threat of God’s nearness. Which of you convicts me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) To be fair to contemporary man, who has stopped caring about Jesus Christ because he is drowned and drenched in the pagan culture which envelops him, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. Modern man seems so free and yet fears freedom. Test out your local I’m spiritual but not religious neighbors, and you shall find that what they fear most is the nearness of God! They are enslaved to what is familiar and controllable. They fear all challenges and confrontations to their pretended freedoms. They fear Christ because of what He might demand or what it might cost to follow Him. They don’t like the idea that there might be a right opposed to wrong, a good opposed to evil, and an absolute that calls into question their relative comfort. Who and what they fear above all is Jesus Christ.
They are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find that Jesus Christ questions their religion and the Law that they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness, they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradictory of our ways and mores we fear. We become convinced that there must be something wrong with one who challenges our ideas or habits. Jesus of Nazareth calls all of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He merely irritates or annoys us, we excuse ourselves from following Him on the grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are just too much. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him. Thus, we either ignore Him or kill Him in our hearts.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks seem just too much! If who He says He is was within the scope of human creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. So, the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are irritated because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage is emblazoned out of envy and resentment. Jesus is trespassing upon their sacred ground. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them and all other men worse. The clergy in every age are mostly corrupt. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) The glory that Christ will offer is something that will come near and touch the world in a radically new way.
Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are righteously indignant because we know that we shall die. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) The Pharisees mean: You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words are any different.
This is the response of all men who conclude that earthly death is the end of it all. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that He is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to become an opportunity to hope for joy beyond misery and life beyond death. What He tells us is that God spoke His Word to Abraham to give him the hope of salvation. Jesus is now God’s Word Made Flesh. He speaks to the Pharisees to reveal to them that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that will overcome our death with new and joyful life. The Father’s saying is the promise of salvation to His people. Jesus keeps this saying. This means that He cleaves to the power of love that will save all men. Jesus is the same unchanging Word of God, the saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation. This is the same unchanging Word of God that inspires Jesus to save all of us. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s ‘saying’ of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion that longs to touch and transform us. This is the Passion that came near to Abraham, touched him, and transformed all his fears into unshakable hope. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in Passion to keep the Father’s saying. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, we learn that Christ’s Passion will suffer to win our salvation. He calls us forward to be moved by the love that is alive in His heart. If we are humble enough, He will come near to us. If we open our hearts, His approach will touch us and unsettle us. If we remain with Him, His Passion will wound us. If we follow Him up to His Cross, we shall be bruised by His loving death. In that death, we shall believe that we shall not die but live with Him forever. So, with Henry Vaughn, let us gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(Gal. iv. 26)
At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ's command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly some seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus in order to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet wholly hanging upon crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus' mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.
Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –mothering the earthly bastard offspring of vice. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try the further back we fall.
Today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate Jerusalem which is above…free…and the Mother of us all. (Ibid) So we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might give us a foretaste of our heavenly future. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. So, He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us that Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is a thing meet for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance, and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)
So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, we wonder, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5). Our minds are bent on earthly things. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6)He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip's faith so that he might find hope in heavenly and not earthly nourishment. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can find or afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Philip answers, as most of us would, as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should h in Christ’s power to fulfill all of his needs. He should have remembered that the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to remind Philip that God alone provides our every need and want.
Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what they do not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought. Philip said we have too many to feed. Andrew said we have too little with which to feed them.
True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little. Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of cushioned grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to join in His thanksgiving to the Father as we are fed on our journey up to Jerusalem. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. Tiny morsels and crumbs of bread along with a small sip of wine will become supernaturally potent with Christ’s loving presence. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31) Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (St. Matthew xiii. 31,32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is spread through small fragments remaining from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who are worried about what might happen to their bodies, all the while ignoring the state of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls.
But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving.... (Par’s. p. 213) Christ’s real intention is not feeding hungry bodies. He will feed hungry bodies to be sure. But He will do more. The seed of faith and hope open up to the indwelling of Christ’s all-powerful spiritual love. His love intends always to fortify and strengthen that faith that must follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)
Therefore, the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above is the spiritual substance of a faith that is growing. Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are the Divine potential for those who will hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food, lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them. Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and mere earthly fare will never sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving…even in Death.
Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou
hast sucked. But Jesus said, Yea rather, blessed are they
that hear the word of God, and keep it.
(St. Luke xi. 27, 28)
In last week's Gospel, a heathen woman taught us how to come to know ourselves, repent of our sins, and to supplicate Christ for His all-powerful, merciful love that heals body and soul. You will remember that the Syro-Phoenician woman taught us how to express humility before God- that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect Lent II) She taught us also that if we are to be healed inwardly and spiritually we must persistently pursue the Lord Jesus and to say at all times O Lord, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me.(St Matthew 15. 22) I hope that like her we came to know ourselves as spiritual whelps or dogs who are never worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [the Lord’s] table. (Prayer of Humble Access)
I hope that we learned also that the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is not meant to encourage temporary appeals in times of earthly emergencies. Her daughter was, after all, grievously vexed with a devil (Idem). Our appeal to Christ must be a constant pursuit of sanctification. We are to come near to the Lord in good times and in bad. We are to search for Him, find Him, and embrace the Grace that He gives to heal our sin-sick souls. As Jesus insists in today’s Gospel, Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 11. 28)
Today, another woman, this time a Jewish one, having witnessed Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man and listening to His Word, praised and lauded Him with these words: Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. (St. Luke 11.27) Or, Happy is the Woman that has Thee for her Son. The mother…of one who ‘speaks as never man spoke’, that has so much of the Grace of Heaven in Him and is so great a blessing to this earth, as Matthew Henry explains it. (M. Henry Comm…) Jesus is unimpressed. He insists that the source or cause of all wisdom and righteousness is God. It may very well be true, and indeed is, that the womb that bare Him and the paps which He had sucked were blessed- His mother was, after all, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she was blessed because she heard the Word of God, and kept it. In other words, she was blessed, indeed blessed…among women (Luke 1. 42)) because her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit had rejoiced in God her Saviour.( St. Luke 1. 47) Blessedness comes from hearing God’s Word, retaining it, nourishing it, and giving birth to it literally and spiritually in human life.
Since the source of all truth is God’s Word, we are called to hear this truth, keep and perfect it. Keeping the Word of God in our souls is what faith's pilgrimage back to God is all about. We must not seek to be healed of incidental demons only to travel on our merry way, forgetting about the nature of God’s Word that longs to transform us more deeply and lastingly. We are called not to treat God and His Word as the doctor and his medicine at Urgent Care. Faith seeks for healing a chronic condition. That chronic condition is sin. Sometimes faith has a particular demon that needs exorcising. Sometimes faith needs help in making it through the common drudgery of life. But faith must always be conquering its vices by amassing those virtues that fortify it against the assaults of other demons. Faith seeks comprehensive healing. The medicine of faith must be allowed to cure the body, soul, and spirit if true spiritual health is to be found.
At the beginning of today's Gospel we read that Jesus was casting out a devil and it was dumb.(St. Luke 11. 14) The man whom Jesus finds is physically deaf and dumb. Obviously, he can neither hear nor speak. He cannot hear the Word of God and keep it because he cannot hear anything. Imagine being in his condition? Imagine not being able to connect with the outside world through words heard and words spoken. We wouldn’t be able to hear poetry recited or music that is sung or played. Sometimes I think that we are so unthankful for the gift of hearing and speech. And look now how our world misuses both. They hear what they want to hear. They take words and insinuate their own malicious interpretations upon them. For what? To destroy the false gods who possess them.
They may not be physically deaf and dumb, but they are certainly spiritually deaf and dumb. They have not heard the Word of God addressing them because they have been too moved and defined by the noise of this world. St. Paul tells us that mindless jabber, filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting (Eph. 5. 4) too often express and define our lives. He warns us against being deceived by vain words that provoke the wrath of God. (Ibid, 6) He reminds us also that when we hear the Word, and keep it as a habit in our hearts, we must then give thanks for it. (Ibid, 4) We cannot begin to give thanks to God for His Word, until the demons of our deaf and dumb natures have been cast off. Hearing God’s Word and keeping it, St. Paul suggests, cannot come about if we are having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. (Ibid, 8, 11)
In our Gospel for today, we read that When the devil was gone out…of the deaf and dumb man…the dumb (man) spake. (St. Luke 11.14) and the people wondered. Those present were amazed. And so too, in our own fallen world, people will be confused and sore-amazed when we begin to hear God’s Word and keep it. God no sooner unlooses our tongues in new spiritual ways, begins to change our lives, than our family members, friends, and others become judgmental and censorious. In the Gospel, some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And others sought a sign from heaven.(St. Luke 11. 15,16) When we begin to hear God’s Word and it begins to grow and mature in our lives, people will suspect that psychological imbalance and mental instability are hard at work within us. They will judge us. Many will become impatient and then indignant with us. Some will sense that this world and the words that enslave them to it are being judged and measured by the still small voice of God’s Word hard at work in our hearts and souls. They might begin to perceive that our silence is true Wisdom’s best reply. (Euripides)
But Jesus makes it clear that when our spiritual ears are opened and our spiritual tongues are unloosed, God’s Word and not the devil has responded to man’s sickness and infirmity. If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges. (Ibid, 19) The Devil disrupts, divides, stirs up, confuses, and confounds men with lots of noise. Jesus says, But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke 11.20) It is the finger of God alone that is powerful enough to find our dumb and deaf silence and to infuse it with the healing and salvific Word of Truth. The Devil or Beelzebub ensnares and entangles us in panic and fear over earthly calamities that won’t make much difference if we remain deaf to God’s Word. Through television, the internet, and the cell phone the Devil is whipping us up into a veritable frenzy, perfecting anxiety and the fear of death. He is having lots of fun. And Christians, falling for it hook, line, and sinker, are being made deaf to the Word of God. The Devil is no friend of spiritual silence and the Word of God that must be our chief concern and interest. He is not divided against himself (St. Luke xi. 18), for his single determination is to sever us from the still small voice of God (1 Kings xix. 12) that would calm our souls and keep us on course to God and Kingdom.
Someone much stronger than Satan must drive Satan out. Someone whose power can overcome all confusion must enable us to hear and respond to God’s voice once again. That one is God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. For when a stronger than [Satan] shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all the armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke 11. 21) When Jesus the Word drives out Satan, Satan's power is gone. When the Word drives the Devil out, then the Devil is silenced. Goodness and healing come from God’s Word alone. God speaks His healing Word through His Son Jesus Christ and the powers of darkness, disorder, and despair are scattered. God’s Word of love alone banishes Satan’s deafening noise.
Keeping the Word of God is the hard part. Because of silence and stillness, the unclean spirit has gone out of us. (Ibid, 24) But then there is a danger. We walk through dry places. (Idem) We have been emptied but not filled. We might be healed of Satan’s indwelling and yet not from his ongoing effort to confuse and confound us. As the Abbott Bruno says, we are:
Empty, since he finds there no charity, nor true faith, nor humility, nor patience, nor justice, nor mercy, nor any of the other things with which the souls of the saints are furnished. How does he find it? Swept and garnished: he finds it as he desires to find it. (St. Bruno, Toale)
In this Lent, we must find more than courage to welcome Christ the Strong Man into our hearts. We must pray to keep Christ the Word alive and growing in our hearts. With the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel, we must cherish and treasure the gift of hearing Christ’s healing Word for the first time. We must be silent and quiet each day as we renew our faith with all humility and much patience. We must embrace God’s Word of mercy as a healing love we do not deserve in order to be rewarded with the health of salvation that God’s justice affords. We must be blessed because first we heard the Word, and in hearing the Word, we believed, and in believing we safeguarded it. (St. Bruno, Toale) Safeguarding means receiving with meekness the implanted Word which is able to save [our] souls.The first sound that today’s deaf and dumb man hears is God’s Word. He speaks and, no doubt, praises God for it! Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28)
As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
The season of Lent is nothing if it does not confuse human wisdom and turn man’s expectations upside down. For what the lections of this Holy Season attempt to show us is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Cor. iii. 19) And again, as Isaiah records, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people…for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29. 14) In Lent, we learn that the Wisdom of God revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ, more often than not, challenges and overturns the wisdom of this world. And I don’t mean to say that human wisdom or reason is destroyed, but rather that its limitations cry out for perfection and redemption at the hands of Jesus.
In last week’s Gospel, we read of a real challenge and trial that Christ underwent in order to resist the wisdom of this world and to embrace God’s Wisdom. You will remember that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there we learned that Christ resisted Satan’s temptations and banished him. The wisdom that we gleaned from that Gospel is that Jesus Christ, God as Man, faced evil, resisted it, and in the end, overcame it. Man’s wisdom walks in step with the devil; it thinks that it can use the Divine Spirit for worldly ends, that it can make God subject to its whims and idle curiosities, and that it can be as absolute as God. (RDC. Lent I) What Jesus Christ reveals to us is that true wisdom is God’s will and that the new humanity which He struggles to establish as a pattern depends wholly upon it. The devil strives to sever Jesus and us from God’s will and way. He longs to hide us from ourselves, establishing and centering us in our muddled confusions and delusions, concealing from us the true way of liberation and healing. He longs to hide us even from the Wisdom of God, from seeing and knowing that the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job xxviii. 28)
But Jesus came down from Heaven to reveal God’s wisdom through His human nature for our benefit. He came down to bring us back to the fear of the Lord so that the Divine Wisdom might be born our hearts. But if we heed the message of today’s Gospel, we learn that there is another dimension still that must be added to our fear of the Lord if God’s Wisdom is to come alive in our lives. This is the element of desire. From our limited earthly passions and desires, we learn to fear the Lord. Then we must desire to secure the power that His Wisdom affords.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see how alien, unfamiliar, and even foreign God’s Wisdom is to most men in most ages. Jesus had departed from Jerusalem and from a people who would not receive the Wisdom that He endeavored to disclose and reveal. The ancient Old Testament prognosis of God’s people was finding fulfillment in Jesus’ hearing: This people draweth unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Matthew xv. 8) God’s Wisdom had found no place to germinate and grow itself in the hearts of the religious Jews of Jesus’ day.
Even Jesus’ disciples seemed hard-hearted and dimwitted. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man. (St. Matthew xv. 18-20) God’s Wisdom cannot touch and transform those who do not desire Him from within. Those who come to need it realize that their earthly efforts provide no lasting health and happiness. Today, because He did not find any need for what He offered from His own people, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus left religious Jerusalem for the frontier territory where Israel bordered the land of the heathen. Perhaps the Wisdom that He carried would find takers with the Gentiles.
What He found confounded the customs and habits of both the Jewish scribes and also of His own disciples. God’s Wisdom was, after all, revealed and shared, first and foremost, with them. That a pagan woman’s understanding of it should have shown up the Jews’ blindness and resistance of it must have been all the more confounding and even irritating. Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 22) Canaan means place of submission, humiliation, and lowliness. So, from this lowly and servileplace, Jesus hears the cry for God’s Wisdom and Mercy. At first, he seems immune and impervious to the plea. St. John Chrysostom writes that The Word [seems to have] no word; the fountain [seems] sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. Perhaps there is something in the nature of the cry that arrests Jesus’ attention and draws Him into prayer. Wisdom is quick to hear and slow to speak…(St. James i. 19) Jesus does not ignore her. Rather, He will hear more from her. He allows her to pursue her desire with passion and persistence. He did, after all, have good reason to come to this place.
Next, we read that, His disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew xv. 23) The disciples long selfishly to take this time in the Gentile wilderness to their advantage. Jesus responds I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew xv. 24) Jesus reminds her that the Jews alone were called by God and were first given the promises because they should have known themselves to be lost sheep. She will imply that the Gentiles too are promised a share in it all! And, besides, she establishes her claim by showing that she knows and feels deeply that she too is a lost sheep. Jesus tries and tests her faith. I will wound and I will heal, saith the Lord. (Deut. xxxii. 39) St. Augustine describes His method in these words: He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. (Aug, Serm. xxvii) Jesus applies God’s Wisdom and tough love to this serious seeker. She bears the pain of her daughter’s demonic possession. Her broken heart nevertheless pursues Jesus in faith with a persistence that will secure the Physician’s cure. She knows who Jesus is and she will have His mercy. Then she came and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Mattew xv. 25) Jesus will draw out the Divine Wisdom that He finds in her heart. This alone can fuel the passion that will secure her desire. It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew xv. 26) To which she responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew xv. 27)
Wisdom has elicited from her heart the confession of pain and the poverty of her spirit. She knows that she is alien to Israel’s promises; she claims no rights to God’s Word and Wisdom; she knows herself as a powerless creature in the presence of her mighty Creator. She knows that she is as good as a nearly dead dog in need of a kind man’s care and love. So, she turns to the sole source and origin of all healing. The Wisdom in Jesus is met by her own. Yes Lord, in comparison to your own people who are your lost sheep, I am a lost dog. But, surely, this lost dog can find in you a Master whose mercy is great enough to let me eat of the crumbs that fall from your table. And, unlike your lost sheep, this lost dog has found its Master! God’s Wisdom is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Jesus honors in this Gentile woman what He could not find in His own people or even in His disciples. O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. (St. Matthew xv. 28)
Today let us take note of the alien woman’s pain. I wound and I will heal. (Idem) This woman is self-consciously broken and wounded. She knows herself and she knows that what she needs can come from Jesus alone. They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick. (St. Luke v. 31) She is content to admit that she is a sick dog. Archbishop Trench reminds us that most people would have turned away in anger and despair. (Notes on the Parables…) This woman is not arrogant with insecurity. She knows the powerlessness of fallen man. She knows the power of Almighty God in Jesus Christ. Many would count this woman a fool in the face of what seems cruel mockery from Jesus. But this woman was no Snowflake! Here we find a truly liberated woman full of wisdom, strong courage, and determined persistence! Where is the wise person?...Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. i. 20, 21) The woman of Canaan was a fool for Christ. This alien woman, a dog, will humbly and thankfully receive supernaturally charged crumbs that drop from Christ’s table.
Oftentimes, our Savior seems to deny our initial petitions. He seems to say No to us. But Christ knows that He can do us no good until he has established a conversation and relationship with us. He will try and test and even tease out not only what we want but how we must want it. This woman knows that she is not worthy to gather up the crumbs that fall from Christ’s table. Christ will have her not only say it but show it for her benefit and for ours. To this woman’s great humility and faith, Jesus says Be it unto thee, even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Idem, 28) Amen.
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
(St. Matthew iv. 11)
On Ash Wednesday you and I entered the Holy Season of Lent as we began our journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) On that day we were invited to go up to the City of the Jewish Kings or the City of Man that had come closest to a personal relationship with God in order to discover what its citizens will do to God’s only-begotten Son and our Saviour. We were invited to come up higher to study and ponder the final days and unusual end of this Man Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God. We began our Lenten Journey with the hope that we might go up to Jerusalem so that we might be welcomed to go up higher still from the high point of Christ’s Crucifixion through the gate that leads into God’s Kingdom. We were invited by Jesus to go up to Jerusalem so that with and even in Him we might move from death to life and from earth back to Heaven.
But what is the nature of this journey that we have been invited to make with Jesus? It seems to be the culmination of a commitment made long before by Jesus when He began to call us onto His path of life. That road began for Him in the desert or the wilderness where He was tempted to stop His Mission to us before it started. We read that when He began His ministry, He was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (St. Matthew iv. 1) Long before He invited us to journey with Him up to Jerusalem, He was tempted by Satan in the desert at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. The Son of God came down from Heaven and He cannot invite us to accompany Him on His return journey to Heaven without redeeming our human nature or making it right with God once again. Adam had made our nature wrong with God. Now Jesus Christ will make it right. Thus, Christ must get under our skin to restore us to our Heavenly Father!
Jesus insists that we must follow Him into the desert in order to see clearly the nature of human temptation to sin. We can confront sin head-on only when we enter an isolated place, free of all distractions so that our focus can be concentrated and sharpened. So, we read: And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) The Spirit leads Jesus because as St. Thomas Aquinas says, Christ wished to strengthen us against temptation, warn us that no man is safe or free from temptation, and to give us a way to overcome temptations through confidence in His mercy. (Summary, Summa…iii. xli. 1) For man to return to God, the Son of Man wishes to remind us that like Him, we all shall be tempted and that no one is immune to it. Jesus also wishes to give us a way to conquer temptation by appealing to His mercy and power.
Jesus must resist those temptations that threaten His journey up to Jerusalem for us. My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation. Set thy heart aright, and constantly endure. (Ecclus. 2. 1) Fulton Sheen tells us that Jesus is tempted to take three shortcuts from the Cross in His mission to us. (The Life of Christ, Image Press, p. 63) Because Jesus is the Son of God, He is tempted to find an easier and softer way of saving us. We read that when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew 4. 3) Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. So, naturally enough because He has fasted for forty days, He is exhausted, physically spent, and desperately hungry. The Devil tempts Him to prove that He is the Son of God by satisfying his bodily hunger first and foremost. But though Jesus is a Man, He `is first the Son of God. Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew 5.6) Jesus must first hunger and thirst for God’s will before finding food for his earthly need. He knows that the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (St. Matthew xxvi. 41) Man must fast and pray to overcome the temptation to put the earth, its fruits, and our hunger first. Man’s new life can be right with God only when we put spiritual sustenance before bodily cravings. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread or to make men [fuller and] richer without making them holier. (F. Sheen, Life of Christ, p.66) Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus retorts, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew 4.4) Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto thee. (St. Matthew 6. 33) Jesus rejects the first shortcut to His Cross. He doesn’t want us to think that the eradication of earthly hunger is His priority.
Jesus is prepared for the second temptation. If Satan cannot convince Jesus that the Son of God came down to eradicate world hunger, then he will play upon the vanity of His spirit. Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew 5. 6) If the urgency of earthly hunger and the needs of the body will not pull Jesus down, perhaps Jesus can herald in a new mysticism that promises to protect all men from earthly harm and danger. Wouldn’t this be far easier than going up to the Jerusalem of the Cross? By throwing Himself off of the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus can prove that He is the Son of God. His holiness in the spirit will trigger a miracle no matter what. God has promised the man of faith protection from harm. Jesus is tempted to use miracles to redeem all men. Cast thyself down, the devil exclaims. Prove to us how holy you are! Prove to us that God would not let His only Son perish! Jesus responds It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.(St. Matthew 4. 7) We will fall into the hands of the Lord, and not into the hands of men: for as His majesty is, so is His mercy. (Ecclus. 2.18) Jesus is God’s only Son. Jesus cannot provoke cheap Grace to save us all. The power of miracles lasts for about as long as fallen man’s attention span. God’s loving protection must be embraced in sickness and in health, on good days and bad, and in the midst of a crooked and perverse world. Jesus will embrace the love of God inwardly and spiritually. Jesus cannot clothe himself in wondrous miracles. He must win men’s hearts from the hearts that He breaks from the Cross of His love. Pilate will say, Behold the Man. (St. John xix. 5) Some men will see a fool dying for no reason. Others will see the pure and innocent Son of God cleaving to the Father in death and thus desiring our salvation. Jesus rejects the second shortcut.
Still, the devil does not let up. Now the devil will remind Jesus that He is the Word of God through whom all things were made. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew 4. 8,9) Jesus is tempted to forget about the hungry body and a frustrated soul and to prove that He is the Son of God by making peace with Satan. But the love of God in Jesus’ heart has come down from Heaven to redeem fallen man. The devil tempts Jesus to abandon fallen man and be as God by striking a deal with the Devil and settling for an evil world. Here Jesus is tempted to sever Himself from God and to be ruled by Satan’s despair. Jesus is tempted by that human despair that says that evil can never be overcome or vanquished and so we must make our peace with it. Jesus is tempted not to change and transform fallen man but to surrender to the illusive power of evil. Jesus responds definitively, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew 4. 10)
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Jesus submits His earthly hunger to the Father’s Word and Will as the body is tamed by the soul. Jesus overcomes the soul’s vainglorious self-conscious magnificence by subjecting His soul to the Holy Spirit. Jesus is moved by Holy Spirit to move up to Jerusalem in order to redeem the whole of human nature and creation. So, in the barrenness of the desert, in the space and place of struggle with temptation, a new clarity emerges. We come to see that the Whole Man must surrender to God for redemption and transformation. We begin to see that Jesus must offer the whole of Human Nature back to God through the Suffering and Death that will become New Life.
Today, let us remember that in Jesus God as Man defeats Satan. St. Thomas tells us that Christ resisted all temptations by quoting the authority of the Law, not by enforcing His power, ‘so as to give more honor to His human nature and a greater punishment to His adversary, since the foe of the human race was vanquished, not as by God, but as by man’, as St. Pope Leo says. (Summa, III, xli. iv. contr.) It is as Man that Jesus Christ rebukes, conquers, and banishes Satan with the Word of God. As Man He will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows; [will be] wounded for our transgressions…and [will be] bruised for our iniquities. By his stripes we [shall be] healed. (Is. liii. 4) The devil vanishes. Behold the Man who silently and humbly comes down the mountain, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, very God and very Man, clothed completely in our frail human flesh with all of us on His mind and in His heart and ready to invite us to journey with Him up to the Jerusalem of His Cross and beyond.
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem
(Matthew 20. 18)
The Gesima season ends with an invitation to take up another beginning. Behold we go up. (Matt. 20. 18) We are invited onto yet another road, a spiritual road that leads to our death and new life with God. The road which we will tread is not an easy one. It will require a new and determined readiness. The self-discipline we have acquired must be put into the service of a more difficult task. It will call for drastic measures as we learn how to hand over our sin to the Lord for death. It will demand a death to all else but the love of God in Jesus Christ. Progressively our journey will be an invitation on to the road that Jesus Christ is. I am the way, the truth, and the life, (John 14. 6) Follow me, Jesus says, for behold we go up to Jerusalem. In other words, behold we go up…if we wish to follow Jesus to His Kingdom.
Our journey will teach us many things about ourselves and about God’s Love. First, of course, we shall learn what happens when sinful man cannot endure the love of God in the heart of Jesus. Every one of us is fallen, fallen out of the love of God and the love of our neighbor. Fallen man rejects God’s Love. God’s Love never ceases to be itself and this means that it insists upon conditions that most men cannot endure. Love is made flesh for us in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is that perfect Love that never ceases to offer itself to all people in all ages. But fallen man rejects this Love, this desire that is at once persistent and consistent. God’s Love persistently reveals the truth in Jesus Christ. That Love is consistent with the nature of God and His expectations for men.
Long before the coming of Christ, the prophets foretold of how God’s Love would be received in the heart of sinful man. They foretold of how fallen man would not be able to endure the persistent presence of God’s Love in the world. Fallen man resists when God’s Love threatens to disrupt the continuance of his constant comfort. The prophets knew that most men would be hard pressed to abandon the good of this world for the sake of God’s Love.
Even the Apostles themselves bear witness to how difficult it will be to embrace the love of God in Jesus Christ. They believe that Jesus is the Love of God the Father made flesh. But they cannot see that He must be delivered unto the Gentiles.
(Luke 18. 31) Nor can they allow themselves to imagine that He shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on. (Luke 18. 32) That Jesus will be demoralized, derided, and despoiled is beyond what they think is right or appropriate for God’s Good Man. Why? Their concept of Love knows no struggle, difficulty, or sacrifice. What they see of Love involves neither suffering nor self-denial. The Apostles desire to go up with Jesus to Jerusalem and yet they have no conception of what God’s Love in the heart of Jesus must suffer from the hands of sinful man in order to save them all. Jesus prophesies that they shall scourge Him and put Him to death. (Ibid, 33) But the Apostlesunderstood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.(Ibid, 34) Calvin says that they had formed the expectation for joyful and prosperous advancement and therefore had reckoned it to be in the highest degree absurd that Christ should be ignominiously crucified. (J. Calvin: Harmony of the Gospels, xvii) Their minds see only the prospect of going up to joyful glory. They cannot see. Their blindness is confirmed in what follows.
And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.(Luke 18. 35-37) The Apostles do not understand what Jesus has said to them. They are blind and cannot see. And what do they find? A man who is blind in another way stumbles onto their path. They are spiritually blind, but he is physically blind. But this physically blind man sees what the Apostles do not see. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.(Luke 18.38) What he could not see with his eyes, he saw and knew with the eyes of his soul. And so he cries out for God’s love in the heart of Jesus for mercy. In some deep way, he knows that the Jesus who is going up to Jerusalem will come down to minister to him. The Apostles are blind and thus cannot see the point. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace. (Luke 18. 39) The Apostles are confused enough already; so, why should they allow some pathetic blind man to interrupt a journey already wrought with perplexity? Yet, the blind man sees. He sees that he must reach out to Love made flesh. He sees that he cannot let Love made flesh pass him by. With the eyes of faith and the determination of hope, he sees God’s Love and the Power in Jesus, and so he cried so much the more, Thou son of David, have mercy on me. (Luke 18. 39) Let the Apostles luxuriously wallow in philosophical confusion. This man sees plainly and will have some of that Love that condescends to men of low estate! Love is near. The blind man will procure His healing power.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. And as we go up, we find one who was blind and truly sees, who has only heard of this Jesus and yet sees and understands! Love is going up to Jerusalem, and He will take with him those who see His love and desire more of it. The relationship is established. Will we go up to Jerusalem? Will we follow Love, cry out to Love, implore Love’s mercy as we travel into the depth of its meaning and purpose?
And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him: and when he was come near, he asked him, Saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee? And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 40-42.) Yes, behold we go up to Jerusalem, and as we go up, the Love that will be mocked, spitefully entreated, spitted upon, still loves. Love reaches out to all. Here to a new friend who knew more than Jesus’ old followers because he truly saw who Jesus was and understood the power of His Love. The blind man reveals a faith that sees the Love that heals. This is the Love that is going up to His death. And so He finds one who can assist Him in beginning the process. This Love cannot help but love. This Love cannot help but die to Himself as He comes alive to God in the life of His brother. Jesus sees faith and hope and responds with God’s Love. His says Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. (Luke 18. 42) Love says to the blind man, because you see me inwardly and spiritually, you shall see me now outwardly and materially. And, blessed are they who have not seen, and yet believe. (John 20. 29) Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem)
On the journey up to Jerusalem, Love in the flesh is always Himself. It will never cease to be the Love received from the Father and passed on to all –friend and foe alike. Here a new friend asks for its power and receives it. The new friend has the eyes of faith with which to see. Will we desire this Love with the faith and hope of the blind man? We have been blind, but Love desires for us to see. As St. Paul reminds us this morning, Love or Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth. Love or Charity is always itself. Love made flesh is always Himself. Jesus is Love or Charity made flesh. He suffers all resistance to God’s Love. His Love never ceases to be kind, benevolent, humble, and meek. He is never puffed up or proud, never seeks his own advantage and worldly comfort. In fact, Love always reaches down to lift others up. It stoops down to lift the blind man into the light of day. It will come down from the Cross to see and perceive that those who are killing it on Good Friday might just have a change of heart on Holy Saturday in order to embrace it wholeheartedly on Easter Sunday.
Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem) Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must suffer innocently in order to reveal God’s persistent desire for all men’s salvation? Will we begin to imagine that Love in the flesh must die in order to welcome all men into new life? Will we participate in this reality that Jesus will offer to share with us? If we don’t, we do well to remember that it is always that one thing more that separates man from the Love of God in Jesus Christ. It might be the love that forgives the worst of sinners and their sin. It might be the love that calls forth more generosity at the cost of a sacrifice. It might be the love that must suffer real mental and even physical anguish and loss in order to be rewarded with new life and its gains. Whatever it is, it is usually something rather insignificant in the eternal scheme of things. Will we see, with the blind man, that unless we believe and hope in the invisible work of God’s love in the heart of Jesus, we cannot be saved?
Today, let us forsake all, follow Jesus, and glorify God. (Ibid, 43) With Calvin, those who are healed of their blindness show a grateful mind in presenting themselves to others as mirrors of the Grace of Christ. (Idem) With the blind man, we might even gratefully anticipate the Resurrection that stands behind the Cross.
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!
(Henry Vaughn: The Night)
In the midnight of darkness, behold we see! Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. (Idem)
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. And part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth also since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes men seriously in his serious endeavors in order to make a spiritual point. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus in order to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs afterGod’s justice. This week, we are reminded that the self-discipline that it demands is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all of out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul, needless to say, was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ in itself was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own experience as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable.He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve both bodily and spiritual suffering. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end makes the effort worth all of the struggle. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they cannot hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. Such people hear the Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the Seed of God’s Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it in order to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable that reveals not only the truth of God’s Word but of its presence and expression in the lives we live. And, with Milton, we shall muse in hope,
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
We have just completed our journey from Advent through to Epiphany-tide. As Canon Crouse reminds us, the season we have observed has been a time of expectation, coming and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we observed the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. Now we turn to the period spanning between Septuagesima Sunday and Ascension Day. Septuagesima Sunday is the beginning of our short Gesima season; Gesima means days. Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima refer to 70, 60, and 50 days before Lent. On these three Sundays, we prepare for Lent. Our seasons and the appointed readings come to us from patterns established in the Ancient Church. So, as men of old in the ancient Western Latin Church did, we must use our season for self-discipline. Today’s lesson in self-discipline will include the virtues of temperance and justice.
The virtues that we study today are two of what are known as the Cardinal Virtues. The Cardinal Virtues come to us from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge. These then are the hinge virtues without which we cannot hope to obtain any kind of goodness. Goodness here is that holiness and righteousness which we can find by the use of our reason and free will. The Cardinal Virtues were first formulated by the great Greek philosopher Plato in his Dialogues, were later refined by Aristotle, and were then part and parcel of the Graeco-Roman world’s pursuit of goodness and virtue. The early Church Fathers designated them as Cardinal virtues which come to us by way of reason’s study of the universe and human nature and then the will’s expression of them in the habits of human life. The Fathers taught that they were not especially dependent upon Revelation or Scripture. Instead, they formed a kind of goodness that man can find prior to his need for the Divine Grace and Intervention that lead to salvation. So, you can imagine the Cardinal Virtues are laying a kind of groundwork for the acquisition of goodness in this world. The goodness that they establish conditions the body and soul for an understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The Cardinal Virtues, in a Christian context, provide us with a character of soul and body that will better situate us to pursue the Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Holy Season of Lent.
Our first virtue is discussed today by St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter IX. In it, he likens our pursuit of Heaven to the spiritual and bodily preparation made by ancient Greek runners who competed in the Isthmian Games. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? (1 Cor. 9. 24) Using an earthly paradigm illustrated by comparison to what the Cardinal Virtues can achieve, St. Paul inspires us to run so that we might win a prize. Of course, his illustration relates to a competition where only one man can win and receive the laurel wreath, the crown of triumph and victory in pagan life. St. Paul wants to assure us that as Christians we all can run to obtain the prize. In fact, we cannot receive it unless we run. And run we must since without such a commitment of enthusiasm, energy, and effort, we shall never reach the finish line! So run, that ye may obtain (Ibid, 25), he says. Yet, our running must be conditioned. …Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. (Ibid, 26) As it turns out, our running must be tempered and moderated towards our end. Our end is not the corruptible crown of the laurel wreath that commands the admiration, wonder, praise, and veneration of earthly men. That end is corruptible and passing. Our end is incorruptibleand lasting. And if this is the case, then our moderation and temperance must be of such a sort that best conditions our hearts and souls for the eternal prize of Heaven’s gift in the offer of salvation. The Apostle wants us to remember that we are aiming for a prize of inestimable worth and value. The temperance and moderation that we embrace must be applied to our souls as well as our bodies. The runners at the Isthmian Games kept to a strict diet and discipline. Also, they refrained from those freedoms that stand only to corrupt the body and disrupt focus. How much more then should Christians keep to a strict diet and discipline as they condition their bodies to serve their souls that seek after the prize of God’s Kingdom? The Greek runners were fighting for an earthly prize but Christians for an eternal reward. Thus, the Apostle warns us against that incautious and immoderate indulgence of the world that is always at enmity with God and more likely than not to distract us from running the race. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away. (Ibid, 26, 27) Runners’ arms beat the air as they push their legs onward to an uncertain victory where one wins and the others lose. Christians, with certainty through hope, run all together, tempering their bodies through self-discipline, hoping to gain one reward. Paul calls us to imitate his example as we run with him.
Moderation and temperance condition our body to serve our soul’s end. For Christians, the end is one reward for all. We are invited into collective labour. The ancient pagans were in combat with one another. We cannot afford such a luxury. We must run all together. But their virtues can be used in the service of our Gospel prize. By helping one another to moderate and temper our earthly passions and appetites, we can all appreciate more fully the crown that awaits us. Our crown is the reward or gift of God the Giver. We do not deserve, earn, or merit it. We have been invited to run or to labour in the Vineyard of the Lord, as today’s Gospel would have it. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.(St. Matthew xx. 1) The offer to work in the Vineyard of the Lord is God’s gift. The work is offered at different times of the day or different times of life to men who will come in the morning, noontide, or evening of their lives. Those who come first to work are promised a penny. They have been awakened by the Lord in the morning of their lives and so come early to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. Others are roused or stirred later in the day of their lives. They have been idle, negligent, slothful, careless, or ignorant. Nevertheless, they are given a chance to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They are told that they will receive what is right in payment for their labour. Others are found at the sixth and ninth hours of their lives. Some are even found in the twilight of their lives, at the eleventh hour or the end of the day. They too are welcomed to run the race or work in the vineyard of the Lord. They too will receive what is right as a reward. These men are even rebuked for their sloth. Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Ibid, 6) Yet, the householder’s desire for their service is greater than his bewilderment at their delay in accepting the offer to run to the work that leads to an incorruptible crown.
In today’s Gospel Parable, at the end of the day, all are paid. The last to come are paid first and the first to come are paid last. The moderation and temperance that have conditioned the running and working of the Johnny-come-lately men are of equal value and worth to the first in the heart of the householder. Every man receives a penny. Every man receives the same reward. All run. Some come early and some come late. All are called to work for one end.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12)
Christians are called to run and work not that one may receive the prize but that all may run together to receive the gift of one and the same prize, an incorruptible crown.
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Ibid, 13-16)
Moderation and temperance prepare us for the virtue of justice. Strictly speaking, as fallen and sinful men, we deserve nothing but just punishment for our sins. That is real justice. God’s justice, however, is always tempered by His mercy. He takes our Cardinal Virtues and rewards them with something greater than we could ever deserve or earn. He offers us an incorruptible crown as the reward of being invited into the running and onto a work that leads back to Himself. God tells us that if we accept His invitation to run and to work, we shall be rewarded with a crown whose worth and value far exceed anything that is right or just for men. And, as John Henry Newman says:
We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we
must be right in doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God; in denying
our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our
lusts, in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well
A Light to Lighten the Gentiles,
and the Glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke ii. 32)
Today we celebrate the Feast of The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, which is also known as The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin and also as Candlemas. It is called The Purification after the Jewish ritual custom proscribed in the Twelfth Book of Leviticus, where the mother of a newborn boy is commanded to undergo forty days of cleansing from the blood of childbirth and then to offer herself and the child at the temple with an offering. Her purification is accompanied by the presentation of her child. The ritual itself is a consecration of both the mother and child’s lives to God, and the offering is a sign of thanksgiving and gratitude for safe delivery and the continued health of the mother. If the parents were rich enough, they would offer a lamb. If they were poor, they would offer two turtledoves or two pigeons, as Joseph and Mary did. That the Feast is also called Candlemas originates with Simeon’s prophecy that the Christ Child would be a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of [God’s] people Israel. (Ibid, 32) Later Church tradition has this day as the Feast on which beeswax candles were blessed for use both in churches and in private homes throughout the year. In the old days, Candlemas Term denoted the second trimester in Scottish universities and secondary schools.
So let us study Candlemas. And I would like to do this because I think that it fits nicely in with our Epiphany Season of light. In the past few weeks, we have been focusing on Christ the Light, or on the Light that has begun to illuminate our minds and warm our hearts to the mission and meaning of Jesus Christ. What we have seen is that Christ the Light is the spiritual brilliance and radiance that comes to transform and redeem human nature in such a way that He confuses and confounds before He adjusts and assimilates our vision to His meaning. Think about our Epiphany Gospel readings. In them, we found that the Blessed Virgin Mary was left quite confused about the meaning of her young son’s life. She thought that she had lost Jesus, only to discover that it was she who was truly lost spiritually since she had forgotten why He was born and for what He had come into the world. Later, when she provoked Him to use His power to overcome the depletion of wedding wine, she was reminded that both she and He were destined to face the need for a far more potent wine -the wine of His Sacred Blood. In both cases, the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual vision was not able to see the heavenly Light that informed and defined her earthly Son’s earthly mission.
None of this should surprise us. The Blessed Virgin was Jesus’ earthly mother –the mother of Jesus’ humanity. In so far as she saw what she saw when she saw it, she was a good mother moved and defined by human nature’s light. In this, she was like you and me. She followed Nature’s light. Nature’s light is found in three ways. First, it is the light of the Sun that brings about new life, conserves and moves it to its appointed ends. Through the energy of the Sun the world, as we know it, lives, and moves, and has its being. Second, it is the light of the Sun that sheds its rays and enables us to see. Third, it is the light of man’s intellect by which he comes to study the universe and explore its length, breadth, depth, and height, so that he might order and arrange it to serve his needs. Nature’s light is a gift from God for which we ought to be eternally thankful. This is the light that moves most men, and, no doubt, defined and informed Mary’s relation to her son Jesus.
But there is another Light which stands above Nature’s light. This is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (St. John i. 9) Of course, this Light is Christ or the everlastingly-begotten Word of God. This is the Light that not only makes and creates but calls all men back to God. This is the Light that then joins Himself to human nature in Jesus Christ in order to generate another Light –the Light of faith in the hearts and minds of those who will follow Him. But, this Light of faith is not obtained or possessed easily. The Blessed Virgin, more than others I think, knew this most acutely and painfully. Faith is a gift that grows only with suffering through the trial and error of realizing that we do not yet grasp or understand the true Light. The Light of faith demands humility and obedience. This Light calls us onto the path of Love that leads to true Life. The Light of faithgrows in the heart that listens to Jesus, heeds Jesus, and follows Jesus. One of the hardest truths that the Blessed Virgin had to accept was that her unique role did not entitle the Light of faith in her to the immediate and privileged possession of her Son or His will. She was His earthly mother. God was His heavenly Father. The whole of her life is about letting go of Jesus so that the Light of Faith might carry He to His Cross and beyond.
The Blessed Virgin would learn to follow Jesus in faith and discover in Him the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. Her encounter with the Light began with news brought to her by an unusual other –the Angel Gabriel, who told her of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Ghost. In the Light of [her] faith, she heard of the prophecy of her Son’s everlasting kingship. Nature’s lightcontinually confused her. God’s Son would be born in poverty. The praise brought by Angels and Shepherds reassured her for a time. Still, we must imagine how confused this poor Virgin Mother must have been! Nature’s light taught her that the other Light seemed to be shining in the most unlikely of places and through the strangest of mediums! How could this prophecy of glory and perfection emerge from conditions of such hardship and suffering, she must have wondered. But through it all, by the Light of faith, she followed, and pondered all these things in her heart. (Ibid, ii. 19)
And today we find more of what must have been, at the very least, still more confusing. She and Joseph take the babe to the temple for her ritual Purification and Jesus’ Presentation. And so here, thinking that she was doing only what every other Jewish mother had been commanded to do by Jewish Law after the birth of her male-child, her faith encounters the Light once again. There she and Joseph find old Simeon and Anna. St. Luke tells us that Simeon was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Ibid, 25, 26) Simeon sees God’s Light in Jesus and proceeds to sing the Nunc Dimitis.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word:
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel. (Ibid, 29-32)
Simeon sees God’s Light of salvation in the newborn Jesus; Mary and Joseph marvel at his prophecy. Simeon addresses Mary and reveals the meaning of Jesus’ birth. This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Ibid, 34, 35) The Light of faith will lead Mary, through Jesus, to a future of fall and rising, of suffering and death before redemption and new birth. The process of faith’s journey into Christ the Light will demand that the Light still shine, even in the face of that darkness which will pierce and rend both Christ’s side and Mary’s soul on Calvary’s Cross.
The Feast of Candlemas reminds us that our faith must never hesitate or waiver in the face of confusion, perplexity, or suffering, as it journeys into Christ the Light, who comes to reveal the truth of God’s plan and purpose for us all. The Light of faith demands patience, watching, waiting, and courage. The Light of Faith demands compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and kindness. Today the Blessed Virgin once again is confronted by God’s Light and in Simeon and Anna sees something of what is to come. Both spent their lives in the temple guided by the Light of faith, patiently praying, keeping vigil, looking for the things that were coming from God with earnest expectation and hope. What was rewarded to them as the prize of their faith and hope was a vision of the Savior. They would not live to see and understand the Light and Love that this Life would bring into the world. They would not live to see how this Light would shine even in the Darkness of unjust suffering and death. But Mary would come to understand it all slowly and painfully. But first, the Lord places before her the Light of faith in the lives of Anna and Simeon. Through their faith, Mary is being purified of all earthly expectations –the usual end of Nature’s light, that the Light of her faith might follow and find, see and understand the spiritual meaning of her Son, Christ the Light.
Today, dear friends, let us be determined to walk by the Light of faith. Today’s Purification and Presentation in the Temple should provoke us to cultivate and grow that Light, and so to present ourselves to God with pure and clean hearts. (Collect) Let us with Mary, as the model of our purification, be patient, ever watching and waiting, and even suffering as the Light of faith leads us deeper into the Love of God in Jesus’ Life. From there, let us pray that the illumination of Christ the Light will enkindle our passion to follow Him wheresoever He bids us go and to obey Him in whatever He asks us to do. His Light never ceases to touch us with God’s Love. With Mary let us ponder all things in our hearts and:
Begin from first, where he encradled was
In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay,
Between the toilful ox and humble ass;
And in what rags, and in what base array
The glory of our heavenly riches lay,
When him the silly shepherds came to see,
Whom greatest princes sought on lowest knee.
Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.
Be not wise in your own conceits. (Romans xii. 16)
Thus far in the season of Epiphany, we have been invited to see and perceive the manifestation and revelation of Divine wisdom, love, and power in the life of Jesus Christ. We have followed the Star that draws and summons the soul’s eye to origin and source of all truth and meaning in human life. We have seen his star in the east, and art come to worship him…(St. Matthew ii. 2) We have learned that out of eternity’s consecration of time in the life of the young Jesus, divine wisdom informs and defines the new life that will save all men. Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business…(St. Luke ii. 49) We have gleaned also that this life is made to be redeemed as new and potent spiritual wine that is always being made out of the simple and elemental fragments of created existence. But thou hast kept the best wine until now. (St. John ii. 10) Love, wisdom, and power reveal themselves to us in Epiphany as marks of Jesus’ intention to do even greater things than these. (St. John xiv. 12) And the greater things than these will involve not only what God does in Jesus Christ then and there, but what Jesus will do in us here and now. Epiphany is not only about vision but is also, and more importantly, about the redemptive power of God’s Grace in your life and in mine.
The image of the transformation that Epiphany brings to us is pictured this morning in Jesus’ encounter with a Roman Centurion. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman Legion who commanded roughly one hundred men. He, like the soldiers under his rule, would have been a celibate –Roman soldiers were not permitted to marry until active duty was completed. So, perhaps for the Roman Centurion in this morning’s Gospel, the military unit formed a kind of family for him –soldiers and servants who were the subjects of his paternal care. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. (St. Matthew viii. 5) Capernaum was the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew the tax collector. It also housed a Roman garrison, and thus today’s Centurion. Oddly enough, the pagan Centurion approached Jesus and addressed him as Lord. Jesus responds and says, I will come and heal him. (St. Matthew viii. 7) But the Centurion protests, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) Perhaps he had heard of Jesus’ power from others; maybe he had witnessed the miracles.
In any case, prior to his appeal the Centurion would, no doubt, have known of Jesus’ reputation. We surmise that he must have had some knowledge and experience of Jesus. He must have had a deep sense also of the holiness attached to Jesus’ person. At any rate, he ranked himself as unworthy to have the Lord come down to his house to heal his servant. Jesus was all-holy; the Centurion counted himself as not near such a state of spiritual life. Thus, in humility, he begs Jesus to speak or send His Word only, that his servant might be healed. Only humility can gain from Christ the transformative power of God’s Grace. Clear-headed about his own moral and spiritual weakness, emptied of any pretense to self-importance, disappointed by his own prudence and cleverness, the Centurion’s heart becomes the space that feeds on Faith, looks forward with Hope, and rests in the Love he does not yet possess. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. (St. Matthew viii. 9) This Centurion knows that though he possesses earthly authority, beyond that, he has no access to heaven’s power. In the earthly domain of Caesar, he has the power and authority to command, and he is obeyed. He speaks and it is done. Yet, notice how he says: I am a man under authority. He implies that he too must obey and submit himself to a higher authority. He is Caesar’s soldier.
But he has seen one whom he believes is greater than Caesar and whom he must come to followin a greater way. His sense of the all-holiness emanating from the Person of Jesus commands him to seek out and find Jesus in faith and belief. Jesus has more power and authority than any earthly king. He believes that Jesus is in possession of that Divine power that alone is sufficient to heal his servant. So, with his own feeble desire, he reaches out to One with the power to love and to heal. He believes too that Jesus is in possession of the Divine wisdom, with the truth which will set men free. The overwhelming otherness then that the Centurion finds in the person of Jesus will begin to transform him. He believes and knows; he knows and he seeks; he seeks and he finds. The manifestation and revelation of his own condition and of God’s nature in Jesus carry this pagan Centurion from self-knowledge to faith, and through faith to hope, and in hope to the healing of love. He is moved out of weakness and powerlessness into the redemption that Christ brings. The Epiphany revelation that we find today is twofold. First, we learn of the powerless state of sinful man. Second, if we claim it ourselves, in all humility, we discover God’s response to it in Jesus Christ.
The faith that Jesus finds in this Centurion’s soul is what He came down from heaven to grow. St. Augustine reminds us, this faith is of such a nature that it says, if then I a man under authority have the power of commanding, what power must Thou have, whom all powers serve? The Centurion’s power is earthly and thus limited. The power he perceives in Jesus is the source and origin of all power, can transcend all time and space, overcome all barriers and hurdles, and touch and move the world as it did in the beginning. Speak (or send) the Word only, and my servant shall be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8) God spake the word and they were made; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm xxxiii. 9) The Centurion Roman believes that he must supplicate and obtain this power through faith. He will secure and experience the loving power of God by opening to it in hope. When Jesus heard this Centurion’s confession of faith, He marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew viii. 10, 11) What Jesus finds is a faith that does not hold back in contemplation with wonder, but one which earnestly desires and seeks out the loving power that He carries into the world. What Jesus finds is the prayer that every man must make if he will secure the sanctification and salvation that God longs to bring into human life.
This is the message of our Epiphany-tide. But it comes also with a real warning. Jesus says that the Centurion’s gentile faith is sound and on the way to the Kingdom. He tells us too that the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (St. Matthew viii. 12) What He means is that there are too many Christians who never seek out the healing power of God with all humility. What he means is that those who think that they are the children of the kingdom, are not. Why? Because they are good and, evidently, have no need for the healing power of God in Jesus Christ. These are they who keep God at a safe distance. These are they who have never admitted and confessed their own limitations. These are they who have never admitted their own need for God’s Grace in all of their lives. These are they who have never discovered that spiritual state that we find in today’s Centurion.
Jesus says, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (St. Matthew vii. 7) Salvation is for the humble. Salvation is for the needy. Salvation is for those who know that they are weak and who know that God alone in Jesus Christ can make them strong! Our Centurion had a vision of God at work in Jesus Christ, and with humility, longed to benefit from its power for his suffering servant. From the ground of humble self-emptying, he reached out with every fiber of his being to procure the power that moved the heart of Jesus. Touched by that power in the poverty of his soul, his faith found healing, not only in the life of his servant but within himself. His servant was healed. But he too was healed because his faith was enlarged as he made room for Jesus in the inn of his soul and had a place where Jesus could lay his head. He was healed because his hope was strengthened, and his love was not disappointed. In the Centurion we find a miracle even more significant than that of his servant.
Be not wise in your own conceits, but… condescend to men of low estate. (Romans xii. 16), St. Paul says this morning. He means that we should, with the Centurion, bow down, and realistically discover in the suffering of our loved ones our powerlessness to heal and save them. He means that from this low and humble seat we ought to seek out God’s mercy with all faith, hope, and love. Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the Word only and my servant shall be healed. (Idem)
Today we must ask ourselves, Do we find and discover ourselves truly in the Epiphany illumination that reveals our own deepest need for Christ the light? Are we pouring out our complaint to Christ? If so, with the Centurion, we shall experience the effective power of our loving Saviour, who says, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant, [and his own soul], were healed in the selfsame hour. (St. Matthew viii. 13) May it be so with our souls in His healing mercy. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons