What ties together the Epistle and the Gospel for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity is the life of Saint Paul. In his time he had been both of the men in today’s parable, both the Pharisee and the Publican. He knew what it was to believe himself a righteous man. Listen to other words he wrote, to the Church at Philippi:
“Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”- Phil. 3: 5-9
What happened when he approached Damascus turned his whole world upside down, as indeed, he needed. He was sure that what crowned his righteousness was his zeal to persecute the Church. What he learned was that his crowning act of righteousness was, in reality, the worst sin a man can commit. By persecuting the Church he was persecuting the Messiah, and making himself the enemy of God. At once he was face to face with his guilt, but also with mercy, suddenly knowing the cross of Christ for what it is. He was no longer self-righteous, but regarded himself as the chief of sinners, and the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an Apostle, because, as he reminds us, he had persecuted the Church of God. He could now humble himself, like the Publican. The old Saul of Tarsus was dead. He would write: “The life I live now in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” I will say more about his conversion further on.
In today’s Gospel the Pharisee and the Publican have one thing in common: Both men are telling the truth. The Pharisee really did not commit those outward acts of sin that he mentions - that is, those specific outward acts of sin which he selected from the list. And he really did pay tithes and fast twice a week. The Publican spoke the truth also, by calling himself a sinner.
Back on Good Friday I found some old printed copies of the Reproaches, and thought to use them for the service at noon. But, although they began as the classic Reproaches in the Missal, they diverted into a liturgy of group repentance for such things as the Crusades, the Holocaust, racism and pollution of the earth. I threw away every copy we had. Repenting of sins that we regard as having nothing to do with our own lives, especially when it affords us the opportunity to feel morally superior, is to pray with the Pharisee: “I thank Thee God that I am not as other men are- polluters, racists, and intolerant bigots,” the whole time using the words of the Publican and feigning a plea for mercy. This is a very subtle trend in modern religion, and can be a handy tool in self-deception, as if we needed one. The Pharisee did the same thing. He confessed other people’s sins rather than his own. He was simply a bit more honest than sophisticated modern people who imitate his self-righteousness, only by making a mockery of repentance instead of making a boast as he did
This brings me to the advice I give about Confession, which came from recognizing my own fault one day. I was driving to see another priest and confess my sins, and trying to think of a way to confess one of them in such a way as not to sound quite as bad as I really am. I wanted to whitewash the picture just a bit. But, then it dawned on me that I was supposed to be appearing for the prosecution, not for the defense. When you make your confession of sin, understand that you are appearing for the prosecution, that you are there to accuse yourself. Not in a morbid and dramatic way, but rather in an honest way, simply tell the truth. As the Lord put it in today’s Gospel, humble yourself. In confession you are the prosecutor; you have an Advocate who pleads your case by His cross and death.
In fact, your whole defense is what the Epistle for today is all about, that selection from the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians that I refer to as the Gospel According to Saint Paul. Here we see a definition of the Gospel, with its facts clearly spelled out for us. The very word “Gospel” must be understood from this portion of scripture. In recent years a very phony bit of noise has been made about Gnostic gospels- so called, especially the supposed “Gospel” of Thomas. The Church never covered up the existence of any of these books; rather the Church simply refused to grant them any status since there never was a basis for recognizing them as authentic or true. But, even if the book of Thomas had been received, it still would not have been proper to call it a Gospel. It stops short of the four things that Saint Paul listed as the definition of the Gospel. The four Gospels are called Gospels because they contain within them the Gospel.
Looking at those first eleven verses of I Corinthians chapter 15 we find that four facts emerge. Furthermore, each of these can be found in every sermon of Saint Peter, and then in every sermon of Saint Paul, that is recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Each of those sermons contains these four facts, because these facts are the Gospel itself.
1. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.
Here, as in the Creed, the phrase “according to the scriptures” means “in fulfillment of the scriptures.” Look at the 22nd Psalm. Look at the Suffering Servant passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah: “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.”
2. He was buried.
That is, He died, really and truly in fact, He was dead. The one Man who ever lived and did not deserve the wages of sin, death, was dead and buried just like everyone else.
3. He rose the third day according to (again, in fulfillment of) the scriptures.
Throughout the book of Acts the most commonly used passage of the Old Testament for this is in the 16th Psalm: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”
4. He appeared to witnesses.
This last part is essential to the Gospel. Without these eyewitnesses, the resurrection of Christ would be a mere story. But, the resurrection of Christ is a fact of history, recorded with the blood of martyrs, men who saw Him alive again after His resurrection. While Saint Paul was writing this Epistle, many of these witnesses were yet alive, giving the Church that assurance and confidence that it needed to survive the earliest days of persecution. Eventually, this witness, this martyrdom, cost them their lives in this world; but having seen the resurrected Christ, they despised death; they feared the grave no longer.
Months from now, in the winter, we will celebrate the Conversion of Saint Paul. On that day, we clergy wear white. If the feast is about Saint Paul, then surely we ought to wear red, should we not? Red is the color of martyrs. But, the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul is not about Paul; it is about the last Easter appearance, a part of Easter “out of due time,” just as Saint Paul was called by seeing the Risen Christ “as one born out of due time.” His conversion came from being the last witness of the resurrection of Christ, at which point he learned all of these things we meditate upon today. He learned that he was a sinner. He learned that he was forgiven. He learned that this forgiveness was given by the sacrifice of Christ on his behalf.
The love of God is not just a theoretical thing, a warm fuzzy feel good sentiment. If you want to know the depths of God’s love for you than look at the beaten, crucified bleeding Christ, hanging there and pouring out His soul unto death for you. Take it personally, this love, just as Saint Paul did: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” -Gal. 2:20. Knowing this love, seeing it in these four facts that define the Gospel, you can then pray for God’s mercy, just as the Publican did. And, you can do so in full assurance of hope.