Taken together, the Epistle and Gospel appointed for today speak to the reality of everything we do. St Paul writes to the Colossians about their knowledge of God, a thing essential to the life of every Christian, and the very definition of eternal life. Jesus had said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”1 This hearkens back to the thirty-first chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold the New Covenant, that New Covenant that our Lord spoke of as established in his own blood on that night in which he was betrayed. To know God is at the heart of the New Covenant, which contains this promise: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”2 Here, in the Epistle, St. Paul speaks openly and simply about the knowledge of God; he assumes that his readers do, in fact, know God. The idea that God might be a stranger to the home, and the heart, of any Christian was unfathomable to him. This speaks to the reality of the Christian life of faith; it is not simply a matter of form, and it is never a matter of anything we should call “blind faith.”
Our faith is not blind. Unbelief is blind. Rationalism is blind. The darkness of willful unrepentant sin is the darkness of blindness. But, faith sees, and sees clearly. God remains above and beyond our comprehension, so that we cannot describe him, except by St. Paul’s chapter on charity. That is, we cannot explain God, or know how to define his power, his wisdom or his essence. Nonetheless, this unknowable God has made himself known, and he has revealed himself by the Word made flesh, the only mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus. 3 “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” 4 said our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot comprehend God, we cannot describe God, we cannot understand God, and yet we can know God. He has made himself known, he has revealed himself in his word, and above all the Word made flesh, his only begotten Son. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” 5
And, we can know his will. He has not hidden it away for the wise and learned, but revealed it. Some of that revelation is so simple that we teach it to our children in their earliest years- or, that is, we should. We teach them the Ten Commandments, the Summary of the Law, to pray “Our Father. “ We begin to teach right from wrong at a very early age. This is part of knowing the will of God. As we mature, and need wisdom, we have the wonderful gift of Holy Scripture to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.”6
According to the Wisdom Literature of the Scriptures, such books Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach), Wisdom and Ecclesiastes, the essence of wisdom is moral rather than intellectual. The wise man is a godly and righteous man, and the fool is the one who lives in sin without the fear of God. So, the essence of wisdom is moral rather than intellectual. Someone who has his gaze fixed always and only on the things of this world, and lives as if he is naturally immortal and thus never to face judgment, is a fool, no matter how high an IQ he may possess. A few years ago I wrote an article called “Atheism and Stupidity.” The lack of reason, the laziness of thought, the simplicity and reduction of every theological and philosophical question, that is, the method of atheist apologetics in general, may appear clever to those caught up in them. Indeed, recent books have been produced with this very sort of argumentation by men who should know better, men whose experience when they were in college ought to tell them that simplistic arguments and undocumented material deserve no higher grade than an “f.” Cleverness is no substitute for diligence, and certainly no substitute for either knowledge or wisdom. It cannot deliver the soul from death, nor from standing before the judgment seat of Christ.
True wisdom knows the very thing that genuine science constantly rediscovers. No matter how much knowledge we learn, our ignorance outweighs it all. Every valid scientific discovery adds to our ignorance. How can that be? Simply put, the proportion of human ignorance against human knowledge grows by every major discovery, because every discovery opens more questions than we had before. The arrogance of late 19th century and early 20th century Rationalism should have been blown away forever by the major discoveries of Einstein, and by every advance in modern physics. And, despite this fact, that ought to have everyone in awe, and that ought to produce humility, we still see on some cars those silly “Darwin” stickers that mock the Christian Fish symbol. Don’t they know that they are at least 80 years behind? We still run into people who think there is a conflict between faith and science, and who are unaware of the great number of religious people, Christians and Jews, among the world’s prominent physicists. Of course, this is not just an absence of wisdom, but also of education. But, more to the point, the complexity of the physical universe tells us that the mind of God is beyond all human comprehension. The very complexity that makes up what we call matter, and what we call energy, is enough that we should see how far above our comprehension God is.
Yet, even though his creation is beyond our finite minds, and himself completely hidden, we know God. Furthermore, St. Paul tells us that we know his will, and that he opens the eyes of our understanding to know it as we need to. Listen again to his words:
For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might,6 according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.
Touching the hem of His garment
If we approach what we do here today as simply a matter of form and nothing more, how can today’s scriptures enter into hearts and minds to renew us? I say this because I have been among traditional Anglicans long enough to know that a very great number of our dear brethren have never sought to penetrate the deep meaning and reality of our faith. I have stood in the pulpit of a church, when I was first in Arizona and had been not yet been among that congregation long enough to have an influence, to look out at the spectacle of individuals scattered here and there throughout the pews observing their watches. This was only a minority of the people, but it was disturbing nonetheless. I was acquainted with the term “Shinto Episcopalians.” I asked what it meant. In Japan, the Shinto religion is very old, and no one knows anything about any teaching associated with it. Those who practice it observe the rituals very strictly, but have no knowledge of what they mean.
Different individuals have very strong opinions about how to do a Church service “correctly.” Some want only the Prayer Book and its rubrics, and some the whole enchilada of the Missal according to Ritual Notes, exactly what to do in every way, even how to approach the Gospel Book “at a ninety degree angle.” They swing the thurible exactly the right number of times, and have every detail down perfectly. Fine. I am not against that at all. But, how many of these details really matter if we fail to worship God in spirit and in truth? Recall these words from John’s Gospel:
The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.8
All mountaineers and “Shinto” Anglicans need to hear this: Today’s Gospel shows the power of Jesus Christ to raise the dead at his will, and the power of true faith to apprehend his promise. The woman who had the flow of blood was able to get to the heart of true sacramental theology; not that she knew what she was doing in those terms. The grace of God was present in the Word made Flesh, in Jesus Christ who was walking among the large crowd of people, and she pressed through the crowd to touch a simple material thing. She reached out to touch the hem of his garment as he walked, a thing so simple and mundane, and so very material. A Byzantine Catholic priest once put it to me that everything you need for the sacraments can be found in a proper Mediterranean kitchen. Wine, water, olive oil, flour- just a few simple things. The hem of Christ’s garment was a simple thing. It was a real material thing. The sacraments work this way. They all stem from the incarnate Christ. He is present in the world that he created, having added to his Eternal and Uncreated Person the created matter and nature of everything that is truly human. From the fact of his incarnation, his human nature that tabernacled among us, the physical matter of his human body that walked the earth complete with a human mind and soul, and from the garment in which he clothed it, grace flowed out and healed the woman.
Yes, you can go through the Form very properly; but, in addition to that, your real need is to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment. You come to this sacrament today in very real need. You cannot even keep your own soul alive. No cleverness, no correctness of rubrical directions, and no proper performance will save you from sin and death. You must come “with hearty repentance and true faith” to "take this sacrament to your comfort." You are subject to sin and death, without hope of eternal life unless you lay hold on the grace of God as you pass through this life. You are not coming to this sacrament because you deserve to have it, but because you need it. You need to feed on the bread of life, to be saved from sin and death by consuming the food and drink of eternal life. 9 You need Jesus. You are coming in that need to reach out and touch the hem of his garment. Without this faith, without this knowledge of God, without this humility, without dependence and reliance on his grace and on his power, you would be lost and doomed. I like correct Form. But, you are coming for something in addition. You need to receive the Matter with the Intention of feeding on the Living Christ. This sacramental life is the life of faith, and it is based on knowing God.
1. John 17:3
2. Jeremiah 31:31-34
3. I Timothy 2:5
4. John 14:9
6. Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent.
8. John 4:19-24
9. John 6:26-59