Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity

Probably the best point to begin with today's Gospel is in he words “he had compassion on her.” Jesus immediately grasped the plight of this poor woman, already a widow and now childless because her only son is dead. Under the circumstances of the place and time, she was left in desperate circumstances, dependent on the kindness of her neighbors.

The verb “had compassion” is a familiar one in the Gospels. Luke uses it three times: not only here, but to tell us of the father who had compassion on his prodigal son, and of the good Samaritan who had compassion on the man who fell among thieves. Matthew uses this verb to tell us, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). This verb “had compassion” was used by Matthew and Mark to tell us why Jesus fed the five thousand.

We must resist the temptation at this point to say, “Ah, how wonderful that Jesus was compassionate! This shows how truly human he was!” This thing which we call compassion, or mercy, or kindness (we will return to the point that it is a verb rather than a noun) in the Biblical vocabulary is no sign of humanity but of deity. In Psalm 145 we read,

The LORD is gracious and merciful; long-suffering, and of great goodness.
The LORD is loving unto every man; and his mercy is over all his works.,
So it is not the humanity of our dear Lord which is presented in this text, but rather His Deity. The general impression we receive from the Scriptures is that humankind rarely displays compassion. Only where the Gospel of Jesus has transformed lives and made some impact on society do we observe anything that can be called compassion.

Cain still lures Abel “out into the field” and smites him. We unite ourselves with Cain and ask, “Am I my brother's keeper?” as we complacently live with the abortion holocaust, There are many priests and levites who pass by the man left for dead in the ditch, but very few good Samaritans.

The crowd of observers at the city gate of Nain did not praise Jesus as a great humanitarian. Instead, they “glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.” What they had observed was not merely a feeling, nor an emotional display, nor a sentimental speech on the part of Jesus. They had seen with their eyes a mighty act, an act which only God could bring to pass. Yes, Biblical compassion is a verb, not a noun; an act, not a feeling; a whole pattern of behavior, not merely a sentiment. As God has had compassion on us, may we learn to show it ourselves.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Saint Matthew's Day

The feast-day of St. Matthew comes with a double punch because we celebrate him as both Apostle and Evangelist. As an apostle, he was one of the “twelve valiant saints” chosen by Christ to be eye-witnesses of His earthly ministry and particularly of His resurrection and ascension. These twelve (and the number is symbolic) were the patriarchs of the New Israel. Although the “holy Twelve” have long since left this earth, the promise of Jesus written down by Matthew remains secure: “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the world. Amen.” These are the final words of Matthew's Gospel, words which hint that the Apostles will have their successors in the on-going ministry of the Church.

We celebrate Mathew moreover because he was what the Church's liturgy calls an “evangelist.” That term means that he, along with Mark, Luke, and John, was the human author of the book which bears his name, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” We must stress human author, since the ultimate Author of these books is God Himself. Just as the Twelve were instruments of Christ in proclaiming His message, so the four Evangelists were instruments of the Holy Spirit in writing down the very Word of God.

St Matthew's Day is a time to reflect on the nature of our Faith as Gospel. Religion, generally speaking, is man's quest for God. The numerous religions of the world are a long sad series of human attempts to seek out and find God, not entirely lacking some small blessings which come through God's universal grace, but consistently winding up in frustration. “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks unto Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools....” (Romans 1:21-22a). All religion, as a quest for God, winds up in failure and despair. It is a dead-end street.

But the Gospel is the true story of God's relentless and victorious quest for man. It began when God went walking in the Garden of Eden in pursuit of Adam and Eve. It continued right on until the day when Jesus came to Matthew, “sitting at the receipt of custom,” and said, “Follow me.” Matthew was not searching for God; he was only going about his daily business of a rather contemptible sort. But God in Jesus Christ was seeking Matthew. Matthew went on to write down the good news that God's quest “to seek and save that which is lost,” even publicans and sinners, is a successful and triumphant enterprise. And as Jesus found Matthew, we rejoice that He has likewise found us. And having found us, He will be with us, “even until the end of the world.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Holy Cross Day

It is hard to fathom why this holy day was not included in our American Prayer Book. It was retained in the Prayer Book of the Church of England, but only as a “Black Letter” day, i. e., a day noted in the calendar but not provided with a Collect, Epistle and Gospel of its own. We can be grateful for the publication of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts,” in 1963, which gives us the Collect, Epistle and Gospel we are using today.

Both for preaching and for devotion, this is an exceedingly valuable feast. We remember and proclaim our dear Lord's death upon the cross in Passiontide and supremely on Good Friday. But that is only two brief weeks just before Easter. The wonderful hymns for Passiontide deserve more use than just a handful of services. Any clergyman who has preached his way through this brief season is bound to be aware that even a million sermons on the cross of Christ would only skim the surface of such a topic.

Most families have a skeleton in the closet, a shameful episode which is never spoken of, particularly before children. Coming from an eminently respectable family, I learned only recently of a close relative, a great-uncle long dead, who was convicted of a crime and served time in the penitentiary. That was simply never discussed, and the fact was vouchsafed to me only when I reached the age of 70, by an aunt who is nearly 90. The nature of the crime itself is still a secret.

It is an almost shocking thing that the earliest Christian disciples went around constantly talking about a thing which other people—non-Christian people—would have treated as a shameful family scandal. Their Rabbi, whom they called Lord and Saviour, whom they proclaimed as Risen and Ascended, had died no ordinary death. He had been crucified! In the eyes of the world, such a death was the ultimate disgrace. Hanging or stoning was shameful enough, but crucifixion was reserved for slaves and the worst of criminals. Why was this not kept as a family secret?

In today's Epistle we have a passage (also read on Palm Sunday) where Paul appears to quote a hymn from the church's liturgy. But one phrase Paul himself inserted into the hymn. After the words “he became obedient unto death,” Paul added, “even the death of the cross.”

The message of the New Testament, the very heart of the Gospel, is that in the crucifixion of Jesus, God provided a way to defeat the devil and to provide for the forgiveness of sins. So it is that (in Paul's words), “God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity

While the readings of the Epistles and Gospels might seem to be just random selection, there is actually an underlying pattern. Beginning on the 4th Sunday after Trinity and running on to the 24th Sunday, we read as the first lesson short selections from Paul's Epistles, beginning with Romans and continuing through Colossians. The 13th,14th, and 15th Sundays after Trinity are allocated to Galatians. That is a challenging Epistle! It deals passionately with a doctrinal controversy which might seem remote to us. When we find Paul using the expression “God forbid,” we know he is excited. But what is he so worked up about?

The Galatian churches had been invaded by heretical teachers who were spreading the notion that Christians, even Gentile Christians, must keep the whole Old Testament Law in order to be fully accepted by God. Specifically, Gentile converts must practice circumcision, keep the Sabbath, eat only kosher food, and conform to a Jewish lifestyle.

While this was an attractive idea to naïve new converts, Paul saw that this doctrine actually undermines the very Gospel itself. (We use the present tense--undermines--because this heresy never seems to go away and haunts us even today in many disguises.)

In Galatians 1:8, Paul wrote, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” That is surely the most vehement statement which Paul ever wrote.

What makes this false teaching concerning keeping the Old Testament Law so deadly? Paul was blessed with the spiritual insight to grasp that it undermines and overthrows (note the presence tense again!) the whole Gospel of salvation “by grace through faith.” Our right-standing with God, and our eternal destiny, depend solely and exclusively on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our response to God's act in Christ (His cross and resurrection) can begin only with mere faith. We must never imagine ourselves to be “co-operating” with God as if we were equal partners. We may only surrender, submit and adore.

The whole notion of “co-operating” with God (keeping the Old Testament Law is just one of many forms this heresy takes) is flattering to human vanity. We could then take pride, as the Pharisees did, in what we feel we have done for God. But this would mean that Christ suffered on His cross for no good reason. Paul is absolutely right in saying this is “another gospel, which is no gospel at all.”