Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Romans 13:1-7  * Matthew 8:1-13

When my children were still children I learned a valuable lesson. One evening when dinner was prepared, I sent our daughter to call her three little brothers in from playing outside. Through the window I heard her simply tell them, “come in now; dinner time.” She came in flustered and annoyed to tell me, “they aren’t coming in.” So, I sent her again, and said, “this time tell them, ‘Dad says to come in.’” This time she came back leading the way, her little brothers appearing one at a time. The oldest of the boys was complaining that he wanted a few more minutes out there, but he was in nonetheless. The difference was “Dad says.”
          When St. Paul bids us to be subject to the higher powers, or governing authorities, in today’s Epistle reading, it is implied that the highest power is God Himself. Even among the worst of the worst, even in the highly corrupt and violent Roman Empire and the city of Rome itself, where the church to which he wrote this was located, it was in obedience to God that the Apostle urged respect for authority. That included his charge to them that they lead peaceful and law-abiding lives.
          It is obvious that no human authority, however, is absolute. Shortly after this came a period of time when even so much as being a Christian at all became a capital crime; and that lasted until the year 313 AD, during which long period of history Christians were the victims of an ancient holocaust that claimed several hundred thousand lives (a staggering number in those days). The sentence for being a Christian was death. St. Paul himself would, a few years after writing these words, himself be executed by beheading. The very powers he wrote about would sentence him to death. Why? Because he knew where to draw the line.
          In practical matters of peace and safety, in living with due order, the Apostle taught respect for authority; but not absolute surrender to tyranny. The key to unlock the apparent paradox is very much in the words, “Dad says.” In this case, Christians would pay taxes, honor the emperor within reason, keep the civil statutes, and so on. They would try to live peaceably. But, where the authorities contradicted God, they would have to disobey those earthly rulers in order to obey God.
          This pattern was well established already, long before St. Paul wrote these words. Look at this from the Book of Acts, when Peter and the Apostles stood before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin:

“Before the council… the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:28,29).”

          So, we respect and honor authority, but always with a view that no human being has the authority to rule over anyone’s conscience, that is, to take the place of God. The Highest Power is God. However, unless convinced that it is an issue of “God rather than men,” each one of us is strictly commanded in today’s Epistle reading to be subject to lawful authority. Now, if you believe it is a matter of “God rather than men,” then your conscience should be so firm that you would be willing to be stood up against a wall and shot. Selfish or petty concerns, mere rebellion without a cause, or with a personal agenda, does not count. If the issue is “God rather than men,” I expect you to be willing to die for your convictions. If it so important to disobey the speed limit, not to keep off the grass, or to cause disorder and chaos in society or even in the Church, then readiness to lay down your life for it, whatever it might be, should naturally follow.
          St. Peter was telling the High Priest, in effect, “Yes, but Dad says…” He was saying that it was the Lord Himself, Jesus Christ Who had risen from the dead and had stood before them alive after His death and passion for the sins of the whole world, Who had personally commanded them to preach His Gospel. Therefore, even the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, though their offices had been established by God Himself in the days of Moses, had no authority to tell them to disobey the Lord. The Apostles were bound to obey the Higher Power, Christ the Lord. And, yes they were willing to die for that obedience as an unshakable matter of conscience.
          Notice that Peter and the other Apostles did not speak down to the High Priest and the Council. They were never disrespectful. They even accepted a beating, and rejoiced that they were worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus Christ. They were not rebels, they were not like angry adolescents wanting to make a scene; rather, just like the Centurion, they were men under authority. Like the old TV advertisement for Hebrew National Hotdogs, they were Kosher; they answered to a Higher Authority.
          I resist the idea that we should draw a direct a parallel between the Old Testament rule of the Sanhedrin and the High Priest to the authority God has placed in His Church. But, we may draw an indirect and implied meaning. Listen to these words:

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17).

          The “rule” is the same as care or cure. There are other such passages in the New Testament. There is a good reason why St. Paul wanted Timothy and Titus normally to ordain men who had already proven their ability as fathers in their own households. It takes the same kind of man who is a good father to be a good pastor. Though Paul himself (alone among the Apostles) lived a celibate life, and had raised no family, he nonetheless knew that, normally, it is best for a good father to have the responsibility for the cure of souls.
The priesthood is an eldership automatically (if you know the Greek New Testament you won’t even question that). It is no office for a man who wants either power or prestige. It is an office for a man who accepts responsibility for others, for their eternal good. It is an office with the responsibility of caring for the good of the Church, and also for souls under one’s pastoral care.
          You need to understand something from my perspective. You are not my customers. The customer is always right, and must be placated. But, children in the care of parents, patients in the care of doctors, and parishioners under the care of priests, are not customers. And, they are not always right either. This parish is not my employer, and you are not my bosses: The priest works for God under the authority of the bishop.
My responsibility is to care for your souls. Primarily, just as I was the one calling my sons in for dinner, it is my office to feed you. What do I feed you? Not my own ideas. My own ideas would have no real authority. It would be like my daughter saying, “come in now,” instead of speaking to her brothers on behalf of their father. I am charged with the awesome responsibility of feeding you God’s word. First and foremost that is the Gospel itself, and the appeal to everyone, “be ye reconciled to God.” I am charged always to remind you that Christ died for your sins and rose again, to come to the table with “hearty repentance and true faith.” It is not my own idea. It is what our Father says.
          The correct understanding of authority unlocks the mysteries in the Gospel reading we have today. The Law of Moses required that the leper was to keep his distance, and cry out “Unclean, unclean” as a warning, so others would keep away. In a very real sense, one we would not understand today in our time and place, the leper’s disease made him unclean and was, according to the statutes of the Law, a sin in itself. For, just by having leprosy a person was Lo Tahor, unclean. He was unable to enter the temple. He was, by having this disease, in a sense, required to keep his distance even from God.
          Jesus, as a man under the Law, always kept it perfectly. Yet, as God, He is also the Lawgiver. In the Sermon on the Mount He spoke plainly as the Lawgiver. As a man He obeyed the Law, and as God it was His Law, his property if I may put it that way.
          In dealing with the leper, He would have been expected to keep away so as not be made unclean Himself. Certainly, He would be expected not to touch such a man. Yet, he stretches forth His hand and touches him: “I will; be thou clean.” The words “I will” are words with ultimate authority, the will of God, the will of the Lawgiver Himself. Instead of the unclean man defiling the young rabbi, the Lawgiver Himself cleanses the leper. Instead of the touch making Jesus unclean, His touch makes the leper clean.
          As the leper saw it, this cleansing touch restored him to the fellowship of his people, and allowed him back into the presence of God in the holy temple. His is the Highest Power, Christ making all things new. Just as He cleansed the leper, so He cleanses and restores the souls of all who come to Him with “hearty repentance and true faith.” It is in His power to cleanse and restore. And, as we see in this reading, that is the will of the Highest Power of all; it is the will of God to cleanse and to heal.
          As a man, Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law and the Father’s will. The good will of God is why Jesus so readily took up His cross to take away all of our sins, just as He bore this leper’s sorrows and carried his grief, healing him thoroughly. He triumphed over death and rose the third day. With all the authority and power of the Lawgiver, with all power in heaven and earth as the risen and immortal Man in whose hand the will of God prospers* He commanded His disciples to go into all nations with the Gospel, and make more disciples, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things He had commanded them.
          In line with the Centurion’s observation, Christ had lived His earthly life as a man under authority, even under the Law. He has all things in heaven and earth under His authority now; He gives commandment to his Church to follow Him and to proclaim the kingdom of God in His Name. It is He Who tells us to do these things.

* Isaiah 53:10           

1 comment:

Canon Tallis said...

A very excellent sermon, Father Hart, and one with much material for prayer and meditation. What makes it even more fitting is that it comes on the Sunday before Septuagesima. Coming before "Invitation Sunday" when the priest would ask those wanting to be baptized to hand over their names for the period of Lenten instruction because it reminds us that what we are to "feed" the congregation and especially those yet to be made members of the Church is what God has said and that as directly as possible. An excellent help to all of us as we contemplate our Lenten rules.