Twelfth Sunday After Trinity – Sermon
The epistle is about “spiritual gifts,” a topic that often sounds strange to the average Christian. Those who talk most about spiritual gifts almost always talk about “speaking in tongues,” which brings to mind images of people making strange noises or rolling in the aisles of the church–not things most Christians do or want to do. Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that every Christian possesses a spiritual gift to be used in service to others. As the epistle says, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Spiritual gifts result from baptism. First Corinthians says, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (12:13). This unity does not consist of people who are all the same. Baptismal unity results in a grand diversity. Each Christian is unique and each is called to do different things that serve the common good.
Now, just a modicum of theology floating around somewhere in our brains will cause a light to go on here–“Wait a minute! Isn’t this just like God as Trinity?” God is essentially one, but the one God consists of three persons who do different things.” Being created in the image of God, the church is essential one, but consists of many members with different gifts, ministries and activities.
The very concept of spiritual gifts teaches us that we were made to giver. We were made for ministry and service. This scares the modern narcissist, who responds, “Well, then, what about me?” We must, again, look at God to understand what this means. God is the pre-eminent giver. God has given us life. God has given us the world to enjoy. God gave his only begotten Son so that we might be saved through faith in him. God gives us spiritual gifts. Yet God is not diminished by the gifts he gives. God is whole and complete. God is a loving relationship within himself. This is precisely why he is able to give. God is literally full of love, which overflows in gifts to unworthy creatures.
We are only able to give to others because we have been made whole and complete in Christ. Because our sins have been washed away; because God has given us his Holy Spirit; because God has filled our empty sinful selves with himself, we are now full and able to give to others in the same way God gives to us.
This is what God intended in the beginning. God’s Trinitarian love overflowed into the creation of beautiful and ordered world and people made in his image. We were supposed to multiply God’s love through procreation and creative activity that reflects God’s glory. Instead, we sinned. Sin separated us from God. Instead of being full of God’s love and able to give, we became hollow, needy creatures, who attempt to fill the void created God’s absence by taking from others.
This is why spiritual gifts result from baptism and faith. They are not a natural endowment. The need to take from others for selfish purposes results from the fall. The ability to truly give to another, as God gives to us, results from our experience of redemption in Christ. If we do not know God, if we have not experienced God’s unmerited grace through the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit, we cannot exercise any spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts highlights the communal nature of the church. God fills us with himself but one way he does this is through the gifts of the other members of Christ’s body. For example, when we are discouraged, God may encourage us through a spiritual experience or an angelic visitation. However, it is more likely that God will encourage us through another Christian who has the gift of encouragement. Being a member of the body of Christ means being connected to other people in fulfilling relationships in which all are edified in a reciprocal pattern of giving and receiving.
Our challenge with spiritual gifts is two-fold. First, we must determine what our gifts are. What has God called me to do within the body of Christ and for the body in the world? You spiritual gifts are things that you have been given the ability and inclination to do AND which edify other people. The second part is key here. Many people have ability and inclination to complain and criticize, but these are sins, not spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts have two markers. Fulfilment for the giver and edification for the recipient.
Understanding our spiritual gifts saves us from the frustration of doing things we are not called or gifted to do. We should avoid committing to ministries or efforts for which we do not have the gifts. This ends in disaster. Knowing our gifts tells us where to say yes and also where to say no.
The second challenge is to maintain unity in the exercising of our diverse gifts. This is the main point St. Paul makes in the epistle. When there are a variety of gifts at work, there is a human tendency towards division. Division occurs when people with certain kinds of gifts do not value others who gifts are different. We must develop the spiritual vision to see and appreciate the various ways God is working through other people.
Division also occurs when motives are faulty. When people do things in order to get recognized or from a need to be needed, rather than from the fullness of their experience of God’s love, seeds of resentment and discord are sown. St. Paul’s ultimate word on spiritual gifts comes in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, where he says,
Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1Corinthians 13:2-3).
Part of growing as a Christian is having our motives purified so that we learn to give as God gives and not with strings attached. Over time, God teaches us to give from the fullness of love we experience in relationship with him and not from the need created by our sin.
For, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”
“If you live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13).
The prayer book epistles for Trinity season work their way through the letters of St. Paul from Romans to Collossians, in biblical order. Today is our third week of Romans. The focus has been on baptism and its implications. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As we continually remember, or experience again, our baptism through the life of prayer, we live in a way that is consistent with our identity in Christ. Unfaithfulness results when we forget who we are.
There is another motivation for living faithfully. Namely, the results we experience when we live unfaithfully. There is an over used quote that says something like, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” The quote is often attributed to Einstein, but there seems to be no evidence that he actually wrote or said it. It was probably attributed to him to give the line greater weight in an argument. In any event, this quote seems particularly applicable to human sin. People do the same wrong thing again and again with the crazy notion that the results will be different this time.
Many people allege that Christian morality is oppressive, out of date and unrealistic. However, when we look at the actual evidence in the lives of those who love God with all their heart, soul and mind and love their neighbor as themselves, we discover something different. It turns out that those who worship God faithfully, respect authority, honor the marriage bond, tell the truth, are honest in their dealings and are concerned for the good of their neighbor have a greater sense of peace and fulfillment than those who do not do these things.
Conversely, when we examine the actual lives of people who habitually practice some form of sin, we discover that their lives have produced various kinds of undesirable fruit. Failure to worship God leads to idolatry. Failure to love one’s neighbor by obeying commandments five through ten leads to the weaving of many a tangled web and not a few consequences and psychological problems.
However, this evidence does not always lead to repentance and change. It often leads to more of the same. Take, for example, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. It promised liberation and fulfillment by throwing off the yoke of Christian morality. In fact it produced chaos and much cultural and personal catastrophe. Yet, advertisers and media are still presenting sex, in various non-marital forms, as the fulfillment of all human longing. And, despite the evidence, people are still buying it.
Why, if the empirical evidence is in favor of faithfulness and obedience, do people routinely choose to disobey and act selfishly? Why do we sin if sin does not make sense? Because this is the nature of sin. Sin is an inclination to act in a disobedient way without regard to the long term implications.
“Long term’ is the key. The evidence in favor of obedience is gathered over time in the laboratory of human behavior. We learn the wisdom of obedience through experience. This is why God gave us the history of a nation in the Bible. We can read and observe the long term consequences of sin without having to conduct our own experiment. Of course, many of us end up learning the hard way nonetheless!
Sin does makes sense in its own short term time horizon. If all I want is a good feeling right now and I don’t really care about the consequence next week, month and year, then I will feel free to give full vent to my anger, to grab any desired pleasure, to lie or cheat or steal to get what I want now. Temptation obscures the long term implications and overstates the short term benefits. “You will not die,” the devil said, “but you will be like God.” It turns out that they did experience spiritual death, and being like God wasn’t all it was advertised to be. The world, the flesh and the devil provide an deceptive analysis of disobedience. It’s like the guy who jumped into a thorn bush, rolled around for a while and came out bloody and bruised. He was asked, “Why did you do that?” He responded, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
To be saved from sin by Jesus Christ means to be saved from this irrational and crazy pattern of continuing to expect different results from the same old patterns of sin. We are saved not only from the consequences of sin. We are also saved from the need to engage in the behavior that results in the consequences. We are no longer compelled to jump into the thorn bush.
This brings us to the epistle. “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” If you continue to willfully follow the desires of your fallen nature, you will also inherit the long term consequences of that behavior, which include death. “But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” To mortify means to put to death. To mortify the deeds of the body is to say no to sin, whenever the opportunity surfaces. To “mortify” brings us back to baptism. In baptism, the sinful self died. The person living in a manner that is consistent with baptism will put the old self to death again whenever it rears its ugly head.
The grace of baptism, and the grace of continually remembering our baptism through the life of prayer, is that we are able to do this. When we encounter temptation, with all its irrational and deceptive promises, we are able to say no because we recognize the deception and have the spiritual strength through the Spirit to put the impulse to death rather than follow it. Forgiveness saves us from our past sins, but mortification saves us from sin in the present moment. We won’t feel guilty, ashamed and afraid in the future if we put to death the deeds of the body right now. This is how we share the cross of Jesus and reveal that we are children of God and heirs of the kingdom.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God: and if children, then heir; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may also be gloried together (Romans 8:15-17).
Bob Dylan, in his brief Christian phase, wrote a song entitled, “You gotta serve somebody.” One line said, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” St. Paul is expressing something like this thought in the epistle, where he describes the change that takes place in baptism in terms of slavery:
As ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom 6:19 KJV).
In other words, before you were baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, you were a slave of sin. You surrendered the parts of your body to your sinful desires. You “served” sin. In baptism, the sinful part of you died and the life of Christ was planted in you through the Holy Spirit. Now you are to surrender the parts of your body to the Spirit. You are to serve God.
There is a difficulty in the language St. Paul uses about baptism. In last week’s epistle, he wrote, “We are buried with [Jesus Christ] by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). St. Paul presents this death as an accomplished fact. However, the astute observer of the Christian life will ask, “If the old man, the sinful self, was buried in baptism, why does he seem to be all too alive and active in my life?” Is the old, sinful man kind of like a zombie in a cheesy horror movie? You kill him, but he just gets up and starts following you again.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus impact our lives in three time periods: past, present and future. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” Nothing more needed to be done. Yet, the finished work of the cross must be applied to human history and particular human lives in the present moment. And the work of Christ in the world in the present moment looks forward to a future consummation when the implications of the cross will be applied to the creation in a full and final way.
We were baptized into Christ at a past moment in time. We died and rose with Christ. In a sense, it is finished. Yet this finished work must then be lived out in the present moment. We must actually put the deeds of the old man to death and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit now. As we fight the good fight now, we look forward to the future resurrection, when the old man will be truly dead and buried and all things will be completely new.
Baptism, then, restores to us the ability to live in communion with God. Our sins are forgiven so that we are freed from the burden of guilt. We have the gift of the Spirit, which gives us the power we need to resist temptation do what is right. However, we must still, by acts of the will, say no to sin, surrender our selves, our souls and our bodies to God and live in a new way. We must live in the present moment according to the new identity that we were given in baptism.
In this section of Romans, St. Paul is responding the disobedient Christian who says, “Since God forgives me, it doesn’t matter how I behave.” The logic of St. Paul’s response is not what we might expect. St. Paul does not say, “You are a bad boy and ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Rather, to the disobedient Christian, St. Paul says, “You have forgotten who you are.” “You were baptized into Christ’s death. You participated in Christ’s resurrection–and you’re acting like that didn’t happen.”
Coming to Christ through baptism and faith effects a change of identity. In baptism, we pray, “Give thy Holy Spirit to this child (or this thy servant) that he may be born again.” In baptism we become a child of God, a member of the body of Christ and an heir of the kingdom of God. Our new identity leads us to behave in new ways. Who we are determines what we do. Thieves steal, liars lie and sinners sin, but children of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom serve God.
It follows from this logic that if we are not doing what we should do, we have forgotten, or rejected, our baptism. Or it may be that we have not yet experienced that conversion of the heart that makes the baptismal gift effective in our lives. In any event, the problem is forgetfulness. If we are unfaithful, we have forgotten who we are. The answer is to remember.
It is not a surprise, then, that the word “remembrance” is central to Christian worship. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why do we need to remember? Why do we need recall the presence of Christ and enter back into the experience death and resurrection that began in baptism? Because we forget. Because we drift away from union communion with God and drift back into unfaithfulness. We need to remember, to experience again who we are before we can live as we ought.
Remembrance is the foundation for the life of prayer. Sometimes it is called “recollection.” We live a life of prayer so that we will continually remember who God is, what God has done for us and who we are as a result. We live a life of prayer so that we will experience again our union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit and, as a result, bear the fruits of holy behavior that grow out of that communion.
This is why it is wrong to think of Christianity primarily in terms of behavior. There are many non-Christians whose behavior is better than some Christians. That does not make them Christians. We cannot be good enough to be accepted by God on the basis of our behavior. Holy behavior is the result, not the cause, of our Christian identity. If we examine closely, we will see that faithful Christians are known by their prayerfulness. This prayerfulness leads to new behavior, but the behavior is the fruit and not the foundation of Christian identify. There are other things that will cause people to do what is right, or not do what is wrong. Guilt, shame and fear each produce a kind of morality. Vainglory, the desire to be thought well-of by others, will also lead to people to “be good.” However, only the experience of God’s love in Christ through the Spirit will lead us to obey God from the heart, to do what is right because it is right, to love because we have been loved.
To be a Christian, then, is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. To be a faithful Christian is to live in the light of that experience and identity. To be a faithful Christian is to remember that we were buried with Christ through baptism and raised with Christ through faith. To be a faithful Christian is to live according to our new identity in the present moment, in the hope of resurrection and life in the world to come.
For, “now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life”
The miraculous catch of fish in today’s gospel was repeated by Jesus for emphasis. We recall, from evensong the Friday after Easter, how the Risen Christ appeared to certain apostles by the Sea of Gallilee (or the Lake of Genesaret) and once more told the fisherman to give it another go, with similar results (John 21:1-17). By the first miracle, Peter was called to ministry. By the second miracle, Peter was restored to ministry.
The initial version of the miracle began with Jesus preaching to the multitudes, using Peter’s boat as a pulpit. Jesus sat rather than stood. Sitting in a boat a little distance from the land gave him the best angle to address the crowd. When he finished, Jesus turned to Peter and spoke.
One gets the sense that the command to resume fishing was a practical application of what Jesus had just said to the crowd. Perhaps the sermon touched on how faith means to hear the word of God and do it. Perhaps Jesus spoke about how Moses obeyed the command to walk toward the Red Sea before it parted, or how Joshua obeyed the command to walk around Jericho the specified numbers of times before the walls fell down.
The sermon being ended, we can imagine the people, including Peter, thinking “What a fine preacher this rabbi is. Now lets go get some brunch and enjoy the afternoon.” We know that Peter was doubly anxious for that leisure, having “toiled all the night and taken nothing.” If you’ve ever finished a graveyard shift by hosing down the dirty mats or mopping the filty floor, you know how sweet the anticipated rest will be.
Jesus required activity, not rest. “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Take the nets that you’ve just cleaned and dirty them again. Take the wet clothes you just removed and put them on again. Lift your tired arms and resume your rowing.” Obedience is often inconvenient and doesn’t make sense. Obedience often requires us to do the exact opposite of what we would do.
Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow me” (Luke 18:22 ). That also didn’t make sense. His family worked hard to accumulate the wealth and he was the steward of it. Besides, didn’t Jesus know all the good and charitable works he was doing with the money? Just walk away? Just like that? The rich young ruler heard the word of God and didn’t do it. There was no miracle, no famous story of a new saint. He went away “sorrowful because he was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
However, Peter took the command as the Word of God. He said, “I don’t want to do this and it doesn’t make any sense, but because YOU say so, I will launch out and fish again.” The result was a miracle and a new vocation.
Sometimes it is hard to understand exactly what God wants us to do. More often it is not so hard to understand, it is just hard to do. The commandments are straightforward. Thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that. Above all, “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is not hard to understand, but sometimes it is hard to actually love the particular neighbor in front of us at that particular moment.
We naturally doubt and disobey. We know what God’s word says. We just don’t always want to do it. We always have a good reason. “I can’t do that now, but I will do it later.” “My situation is different.” “We can’t expect people in the twenty-first century to do what the Bible says. I mean, come on, be realistic.” So we save ourselves the toil of launching out into the deep again. But we also fail to realize the miraculous catch.
This is the dilemma of faith and doubt. We say, “Where is God’s presence and provision? God says, “Why won’t you do what I say?” At the root of every area of life in which we feel that God is absent, there is doubt and disobedience. As St. Matthew said of Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazarath, “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58).
The simple, child-like pattern of responding to God’s word with faith and obedience can get lost over time in the Christian life. Our love grows a little bit cold, and we begin to make compromises. We give into temptation and get stuck in habits of disobedience. Our patterns of thinking come to be formed by the world rather than by the word of God.
It happened to Peter. Full of desire to die with Jesus, Peter, instead, ended up denying three times that he even knew him. We can sympathize with Peter on Maundy Thursday as he ran away weeping. He must have wondered, “How the heck did that just happen?” The intentions were so good. We can sympathize because, we, also, have been blind-sided by temptation, fear and doubt in the heat of moment, in the midst of the trial. Faith that has never had a moment of failure has never really been tried. Our faith can never become strong until we realize how weak it really is.
Fortunately, there was a second miracle and second call to ministry. The risen Christ appeared to the cowering band that decided that perhaps fishing, and not apostleship, was their true calling after all. The risen Christ told them to let down the nets again to remind them that they were to be fishers of men, not fishermen. The risen Christ restored Peter and entrusted Peter with his own sheep.
The Second miracle teaches us that, though we may stumble, God does not abandon those he has called to faith. The second miracle teaches us that faith is not so much about our faith as it is about God’s faithfulness. Our faith may wax and wane. But God is always faithful. God will call us again and ask us to obey again. “Launch out in the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
Though we are tired, though the commandment doesn’t makes sense, though we don’t want to, nevertheless, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. For we have learned what is means to remain on the shore, rested, but with empty nets. We have learned, with Peter, that faith may be hard, but faithlessness and distance from God are unbearable. As Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hear the word and God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
The epistle is particularly noteworthy because it proclaims, perhaps more clearly than any other New Testament passage, that the creation, the world that God made in Genesis, will share in the glory of the coming resurrection.
Romans 8:20 says that the creation was an innocent victim of the fall. It was made subject to effects of sin “not willingly” but because God willed it “in hope.” The sin of the people God put in charge of the creation affected the creation so that there is turmoil, decay and death in the created order. However, there is hope for the world that is marred by our sin, just as there is hope for us as fallen creatures. On the cross Jesus redeemed, not just people, but the whole creation. As the Good Friday hymn says, “Earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed” (Hymn 66 v. 3). The creation shares with us the hope of resurrection: “The creation itself will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” This hope is described as an inner longer that fills the created order. “The whole creation groans and travails in labor” waiting for the promised deliverance, just as “we, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” long for the completion of our redemption.
There is a tendency to spiritualize our understanding of salvation. People talk about salvation in terms of “going to heaven” when they die. Heaven is generally thought of as a “spiritual” or non-physical place. While we do believe that the departed in Christ are “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23) or “in paradise” (Luke 23:43), this is an intermediate sate. The departed in Christ also await the return of Christ to judge the world, raise the dead and renew the creation. If “going to heaven” is the ultimate destiny of the redeemed, then salvation has no connection with the physical world. This leads many to think of the Christian hope as escape from the physical world into the realm of spirit.
This is why we must continually emphasize that the Christian hope is the hope of resurrection. “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” As long as our spirits are separated from our bodies, we have not yet reached our destiny. We will be given new bodies for the purpose of living in a new world, for the creation will also experience the resurrection.
The idea that salvation involves escape from the physical into the spiritual is a eastern idea. It is a concept found in Hinduism and Buddhism, not in Christianity. Christianity teaches that we will be saved, not when we are free from the body, but when we are free in the body. The problem with our current bodies is not that they are physical. The problem is that they are subject to sin. Resurrection is the restoration of physical life in harmony with God in a renewed creation.
The idea of salvation as escape from the creation is implied in the popular “rapture” theology. Rapture adherents are waiting for Christ to take them away from the earth to some unspecified place. Their main concern is to guarantee a seat on the train that is leaving earth before it is destroyed. This ignores the promise that the creation will also be saved. It also mitigates against a proper Christian concern for stewardship of the current creation, which is a sacramental sign of our future inheritance. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
To think of salvation in purely spiritual terms also makes the promise of salvation less attractive. I’ve attended many funeral where people have said that the departed is in heaven in a “better place,” but I always doubt that people really believe it. What we love in life is largely physical. We gather together, eat together, work together and play together. When people die, what we miss is the ability to do those things with them. This is why it is hard for us to long for a salvation that is presented as an escape from body and creation.
If we think about it, it doesn’t make sense that God would create a glorious and beautiful world in the beginning and then plot out a plan of salvation that involves the destruction of that world. In fact, the last chapters of Revelation describe the redeemed creation in terms that sound very much like the Garden of Eden, like a renewed creation. There is a “river of water of life” that flows from God’s throne. There is “the tree of life” whose “leaves for the healing of the nations.” There is a marriage supper to be celebrated and, presumably, eaten. It is presented to us as a spiritual reality to be sure, but it is not spirit divorced from body and creation. It is, rather, body and creation filled with God’s Spirit. It is body and creation restored to, or brought to, the glory God intended when he made the world in the beginning.
We want life in the body in the creation, but we want that life to be free from the curse of sin. This is what the Bible promises. As St John tells us in Revelation:
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:4-5 KJV).
When the Bible tells us that God will make all things new, it does not mean that he will completely obliterate the old. It means that God will renew what is old and dying so that it can become what God intended. The New Covenant that God made with us in Christ did not obliterate the Old Covenant. The New Covenant brought the Old Covenant to its fulfillment. The new creation will not obliterate the old creation. The new creation will bring the old creation to its fulfillment.
This principle can be understood in the light of Easter. God did not destroy the body in which Jesus died. He resurrected and renewed it. This is the pattern for our own bodies and the creation. Our current mortal bodies will be changed. As 1 Corinthians says, “This mortal must put on immortality” (15:53). Likewise, the current creation will not be thrown away. It will be changed and renewed.
If we are in awe of the creation as we now observe it, imagine how it will be when the creation has been “delivered from its bondage to corruption” and our eyes have been fully opened in the resurrection so that we can really see. This is a salvation we can truly desire. Indeed, the whole creation groan and travails in labor pains of anticipation. “And not only they, but we also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”
If you happen to peruse the vast wasteland of daytime television, it is likely you will flip past channels featuring opposing individuals yelling or screaming their disagreements to the viewing audience. Usually moderated by the likes of Maury, Dr. Phil or Judge Judy, it is often difficult for the host to focus the antagonists on the truth of a matter, much less find a path toward mutual reconciliation.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is dealing with two disparate groups gathered together. Publicans and sinners have gathered to listen to words of hope from Jesus, while the scribes and Pharisees have congregated to murmur and find fault against Him. Each group was acutely aware of the differences that existed between these first century “saints” and “sinners.”
When reading a novel, watching a movie, or channel surfing at home, we tend to identify with a certain individual character or group. As a Christian, with whom do you identify in today’s Gospel?
Is it with Jesus as he tries to straighten out the religious leaders of his day, teaching them to reach out even to the most despised? Christians should never stop initiating outreach to the unlovable, especially those in their own family.
Do you identify with the scribes and Pharisees who were especially wary of associating with the wrong crowd and becoming exposed to their bad influences? After all, they knew what was proper and in accordance with the law. Christians should appreciate the legacy of faith that church discipline and tradition provides. The blessings of the sacraments are a spiritual treasure that endures to this day, because of their essential, life-giving importance.
Do you think of yourself as being in the company of the tax collectors and sinners? Those who would steal from their own people, yet would rarely darken the door of a synagogue or the
Do you see yourself in the role of the shepherd chasing down strays? All Christians have been commissioned by Christ to seek and save those who are lost. We are never to give up hope, that those who have wandered away, might be found and restored.
How about the 99 sheep who were basically on task? It’s easy for Christians, faithfully serving the church month after month, year after year, to feel invisible and unappreciated.
But the Shepherd does not love them any less than the wayward sheep. In fact, he is counting on the 99 to be there as a loving community the lost can return to and in which they can rediscover their identity as a restored child, beloved of the Father.
Have there been times when you could have been described as a sheep who was lost? Christians can lose their way when they fail to stay close to the Shepherd, or think they can live without the rest of the flock. However, there is always a way back, always an open door, always the possibility of restoration to fellowship.
God’s perspective is found in verse 10 and forms our understanding of this morning’s text. Quote, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” But repentance does not occur in a vacuum.
The scribes and Pharisees took comfort in Scripture texts like Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners.” Taken by itself, it had the natural effect of cutting off interaction with those in need of repentance. The scribes and Pharisees mistakenly believed that reconciliation of sinners with God and their restoration to the community was not possible. This was an unbalanced understanding of the Law and the Prophets.
Repentance and reconciliation requires involvement with people who might not respond to an invitation the first time it is offered. That does not mean we are to stop trying.
My sister encountered a situation with her daughter and son, who because of a difference of opinion, estranged themselves from the rest of the family. She endured many false accusations, and was eventually barred from seeing her own grandchildren. My sister worked diligently to re-open the lines of communication to facilitate reconciliation and healing. No matter how many times her children failed to respond to her cards and emails, she faithfully called them every weekend, leaving messages of love and thoughtfulness on their answering machine. This went on for over a year before the ice began to thaw. Small steps in communication warmed up to renewed relationships and happy visits with the grandchildren.
Sometimes there are members of our own family or community, who do not want the lost to return. Perhaps they are still in need of healing over past hurts the lost one has caused, or they refuse to believe the other person can or may have actually changed. They may have experienced many false starts, or failed attempts at reconciliation. But God never gives up on any of us. And he wishes us to continue to extend that invitation to others.
There is a section of Jewish wisdom literature known as the Pir’ke Avot. The Hebrew translation means sayings of the fathers. One of my favorite quotes is from Rabbi Tarfon and I return to it frequently. He reminds me that “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.”
Restoration is a work of mercy in which God allows us to participate. We are not responsible for the outcome of each individual attempt, but we are responsible to cooperate with His grace and continue to reach out to those who need assurance of His love and forgiveness.
May the Lord renew and strengthen us day by day, and help us in our witness to those in need of repentance and reconciliation with God.
For “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”
The parable of the Great Supper (Luke 15:16-24) is about biblical Israel. Israel experienced her golden age under Kings David and Solomon, when God’s promises were fulfilled. However, her subsequent unfaithfulness to the covenant led to judgment and exile in Babylon. Though Israel returned to the land and rebuilt the temple at the end of the Old Testament period, the former glory was never restored. God promised to send a Messiah who would judge the nations and restore the fortunes of Israel. The coming Messianic age was understood to be a feast. As Isaiah wrote,
In this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow…He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces (25:6-8).
In the Old Testament, God announced the coming feast. In the New Testament Christ came to tell Israel that all things were now ready. It was time to repent, put one’s faith in God’s Messiah and follow him. The parable shows that the people did not repent, but continued with business as usual. So God invited those in the streets and lanes and those in the highways and hedges to take their place. This represents the marginal and non-observant Jews, the Samaritans and the Gentiles.
The first application of the parable for us is that we Gentiles, who were not originally among God’s chosen, should rejoice that we are now included among the invited guests. However, there is also a secondary application that allows us to hear the warning about making excuses. We are now among the elect of God. We are now waiting for the Messiah to come again, just as Israel was waiting for him to come the first time. We must be ready to meet him in a way that first century Israel was not.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, which also speaks of people getting ready for a coming feast, makes the point that the failure to be faithful might cause us to be excluded, just as the invited guests of the parable were excluded. Jesus said,
At midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh (Matthew 25:6-13).
There is a distinction between the foolish virgins and the invited guests of the parable. The invited guests failed to respond when Christ came. The foolish virgins failed to act in advance of his coming. Israel was waiting for the promise, but we have already received it. Because of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God is already here. Christ has already come and all things are now ready. As St Paul says, “Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
We who have “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23) are already living in the kingdom. We already taste the future meal. We already have eternal life. This is why, when the New Testament exhorts us to be ready for Christ’s coming, it exhorts us to be faithful in what we are currently doing. To be ready when the kingdom comes in its fullness is to be faithful citizens of the kingdom now.
It is not a Christian impulse to prepare for the end by heading for the mountains and living in caves. The real danger, when we understand life in the full light of the kingdom, is not that we might be harmed or killed. The real danger is that we might be unfaithful. The martyr dies faithfully. He loses his life and saves it. The apostate lives unfaithfully. He saves his life but loses it.
Jesus is coming, but Jesus is already here and Jesus comes to us right now. Jesus comes to us when we gather around the altar. We can understand the liturgy as Christ descending to be present at the altar and feed us with his body and blood. Or we can understand the liturgy as our ascent into heaven. We “lift up our hearts” to heaven. We are invited with John to “Come up hither into the kingdom” (Revelation 4:1). Time is caught up into eternity. Either way, the future feast is experienced in the present moment.
This is why responding to the invitation means acting now. To be ready for the future coming of Christ is to hear his voice today. It to respond with true and earnest repentance now, to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ now, to live in a new way now. We leave the altar as citizens of the kingdom. We are called, with restored vision, to see Christ in the least of his brethren. In the world, people are a means to some human end. In the kingdom people are the image of God. When Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) he is reminding us that are constantly invited to the feast through the opportunities we are given to minister to Christ in other people.
We make excuses when we are too busy with stuff to embrace and enter the kingdom now through the life of prayer; when we are too hurried and preoccupied in life to see and respond to Christ each day. We make excuses when we would think about the need to make a good confession and change, but choose instead to hold on to a piece of the world for a while longer; when we consider forgiving another and aiming at reconciliation, but choose instead to cling to our pride; when we know we should do some new and obedient thing but choose instead to slothfully continue with the unfaithful status quo.
The invitation is still sounding in the highways and hedges. There is still time, and there is still room. “Come, for all things are now ready!”
We can read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19f.) as a moralistic tale. The rich man was punished for his failure to care for Lazarus. Thus, we better do good for others or else risk a similar fate. There is truth in that moral, but the larger point of the story is why the rich man failed to care for him.
We observe the octave of Corpus Christ on the First Sunday after Trinity because the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood connects with the lessons. The rich man’s neglect of Lazarus reflects a lack of sacramental vision. He saw Lazarus the way the world saw Lazarus. The rich man failed to discern the image of God.
The epistle for Corpus Christi (which we celebrated Last Thursday) is 1 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul chastises the Corinthians for their neglect of the poor in their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. As the Church gathered to celebrate the sacrament, those who had resources feasted, while those who had little went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:21-22). St. Paul warned them with these words:
He who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’ body (1 Corinthians 11:29).
How did they failed to discern the Lord’s Body? Did they fail to discern Christ in the Sacrament? Or did they fail to discern Christ in the poorer members of the church, which is also called “the body of Christ”? Most likely St. Paul meant that they failed to discern the connection between the two.
Both the rich man and Lazarus were members of Israel, God’s chosen people. The story assumes that the rich man attended synagogue where the Bible was regularly read. He called Abraham “father.” He probably kept the kosher rules. His judgment is his failure to live according to the faith he knew. He had been taught him that God made all men his God’s own image. He had heard Deuteronomy 15:11, “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” Yet, when the image of God sat at his gate in need, the rich man failed to see him.
The Ten Commandment are based on the connection between God and our neighbor. We are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind because God made us and redeemed us. And we are love our neighbor as ourselves because our neighbor bears the image of God. God is the reference point for the value of our neighbor, and our neighbor is the tangible sign of God’s presence. We cannot rightly honor one without also honoring the other.
We fall into error when we treat people according to the value the world places on them and not the value God places on them. The world values people more highly when they have more, and puts little on those who have nothing. However, God’s assessment is shown is the post mortem reversal of fortunes. Lazarus was comforted in Paradise and the rich man tormented in Hades. As Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16).
The cross highlights God’s close connection with the those who are viewed as being of little value by the world. On Good Friday, Jesus was Lazarus. He died outside the gate of the city, full of wounds and seemingly godforsaken–with no one to help him.. As Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
Discerning the presence of God in other people does not mean assuming that every needy person is a Christ-like pillar of virtue and every wealthy person is greedy and covetous. Among the needy we typically encounter in America, there is fair share of drug addicts, manipulators and thieves The point is not that we should help the needy because they deserve it. The point is that we should help the needy because they bear the image of God.
The rich man also bore the image of God. However, more was required from him. In the kingdom, wealth is responsibility, not merely status or privilege. The rich man’s behavior did not reflect God’s image–for when God, who possesses all things, saw sinful man laying at his gate full of sin, he went outside his gate, he came down from heaven, to live and die for us. As St. John says, “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11).
The challenge is to know how we should respond in love to the image of God in each person in each circumstance and to reflect God’s image in our own behavior. We should be ready to help, with wisdom. If someone responds with dishonestly, manipulation or irresponsibility, we should hold them accountable. In some circumstances, there may come a point in time when we will no longer help, when love dictates that people face the consequences of their actions. It is not easy to help those is need. The cross was not easy and it is not always easy for God to deal with each of us. The point of the parable is that we must be willing. We cannot withdraw behind a gate so as to ignore the needs around us. We must love the image of God in others, just as God loves his image in us.
We must also resist the worldly temptation to esteem people highly just because they are rich or famous. Love requires that we be willing to speak the truth to those who have “the world’s goods,” reminding them that God requires much from those to whom he has given much. One wonders if anyone from the synagogue ever called the rich man to account for his neglect of the poor at his gate? We should esteem people on the basis of their faith, humility, generosity, virtue and goodness, not on the basis of their appearance, wealth or status in the world.
Of course, we know this. We hear it each week in the epistles and the gospels. We read it in our daily Bible lessons. We rehearse it year in and year out as we remember again the revelation of God in Christ in the church year. We pray it week in and week out in the liturgies of the church. The rich man was surprised at the judgment of God. He wanted his relatives to be given special notice lest they also share his fate. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” That is to say, God doesn’t feel the need to repeat himself. As Psalm 95 says, “Today if you will hear his voice harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8). God means what he has said, he expects us to act on it and he will judge accordingly on the Last Day. As the epistle says, “This is the commandment we have from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:21).
I once read somewhere that Trinity Sunday is the only feast of the year that celebrates a doctrine. However, I’ve come to realize that statement is misleading. For God is Trinity, and we can hardly say that God is merely a doctrine. In fact, a primary error with regard to the Trinity is the attempt to understand the Trinity as formula rather than as experience.
The word Trinity is not in the Bible. But we use lots of words that are not in the Bible to explain the truths the Bible reveals to us. The words “transcendent” and “Incarnation” are not in the Bible either, but both describe biblical truths about God. The Bible is the record of how God has revealed himself to man. Theological statements such as “God is Trinity” are the result of the church’s inspired reflection on that revelation.
This is not entirely different than the way scientists develop laws and principles about the world. It is said that Newton discovered the law of gravity when an apple fell from the tree and hit him in the head. That is to say, the law of gravity resulted from reflection on and experience of the creation–just as the doctrine of the Trinity results from reflection on and experience of the revelation. The difference is that one must have eyes of faith in order to see the revelation.
One consequence of the fall of man is that we lost our sacramental vision. Because of sin, man cannot see God. He cannot see that the creation is an outward and visible sign of a glorious Creator. Man tends to see the visible world as an end in and of itself. Or, if he sees through the physical to the spiritual, his vision is not 20-20. His vision is clouded and he falls into error or heresy.
It is only through our experience of redemption in Christ through the Holy Spirit that our vision is fully restored to us. This is why, in all the resurrection appearances in the gospels, some act of revelation had to take place before people could actually “see” the risen Christ. The Father reveals himself through his Son. We are able to comprehend, or “see” the revelation through the Spirit. The Trinity must first be known as an experience before it can be understood as a doctrine.
This is precisely what Jesus tells us in the gospel (John 3:1-15). “Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The word “see” in this verse does no mean merely to look at. It means to know, to understand. Without the gift of the Spirit, by which we are born again, we cannot know God or understand the nature of his kingdom.
The same point is made in the epistle (Revelation 4). St. John saw an open door in heaven and a voice invited him to “Come up hither.” “Immediately” he was “in the Spirit” in the presence of God. Only through the Spirit was John able to ascend into the presence of God and see heavenly things.
We must first know the Father through the Son in the Spirit before we can understand that God is three persons who are united in one substance of being. We must be worshipers of God before we can be theologians. This has important implications for the mission work of the church. It suggests that there are limitations to the effectiveness of purely rational arguments in evangelism. We can’t bring people to knowledge of the Trinity by mere force of argument. For how can we get people to see, by mere logic, what Jesus himself says they can’t see unless they are first born again? Evangelism must always begin with the prayer that those who are spiritually blind may be given the gift of sight. Conversion only takes place when God enables someone to see.
When we understand that we are spiritually blind because of sin, we understand that sin involves the loss our contemplative nature. This is why the gift of restored vision in Christ leads to worship and contemplation. The ability to see leads us to understand the genuine meaning and value of created things. Now we look at the creation and see the glory of the Creator. Now we look at bread and wine and see the body and blood of Christ. Fallen man lacks this vision and, therefore, is drawn away from worship and contemplation. He focuses on the physical as an end in and of itself. This is the very definition of idolatry.
This is especially evident in the modern world. Lack of contemplative vision causes people to see things in utilitarian terms because they are blind to the intrinsic value God has given them. When we see the creation as a sign of the Creator, we begin to understand the value and mystery of each part of the creation. We are moved to wonder and exploration–exploration, but not exploitation. For one who truly sees understands that we can explore and enjoy the majesty and mystery of God, but we cannot use God or his creation for our own ends.
The modern world does not value worship because it has no sacramental vision. All things are valued only in economic terms, or in terms of what I think of them–in terms of their subjective value to me, not the objective value God has given them. However worship and contemplation are central activities for the person who truly sees. For when we are born again, we begin to see the kingdom in all things and the Spirit calls us to “Come up hither” into heaven where we can see God.
Our restored vision enables us to see God’s Trinitarian nature. God the Father, whom we cannot see, who is beyond our comprehension, is continually making himself know in tangible ways through his Son, who is the very image of the Father. And we perceive the revelation of the Father through the Son by means of the Spirit, who opens our eyes to see. Three persons, yet only one God–“As in was in the beginning is now and ever shall be.”
The more we see, the more we realize that the there is much more to see. We talk about eternal life, about the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Sometimes we wonder what it will be like. We can begin to contemplate eternity by imagining how we will experience the world when the vision provided by faith gives way to fully restored sight; when we not only join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in the Spirit by faith, but actually spend time in conversation and fellowship with them; when we not only commune with God through sacramental signs, but actually see God.
We know God in Christ through the Spirit. But we do not yet fully understand God as Trinity. This is a good thing, for it means that there is much mystery to explore and discover, both in time and in eternity. As St. Paul says, “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:13).