Saturday, September 08, 2012

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Galatians 5:16-25 * Luke 17:11-19

The readings from the Epistle and Gospel are really about human weakness and Divine power. The weakness of mere human power to withstand the temptations this world inevitably will provide, has a powerful image in the disease of leprosy. It is all too easy to misunderstand why St. Paul used the word “flesh” to speak of human weakness, a weakness in our whole species that has been with us since that very old event we call the Fall into sin and death.

Whatever happened is so beyond our understanding, that the Bible gives it to us in the story of Adam and Eve, some might say with all the elements of myth and parable. But, a historical fact lies at the center: Human disobedience radically altered God’s creation. The details are likely beyond our understanding, because the very word “Fall” indicates that we had ancestors who were not below our nature as it is, but above it, if only in a moral and spiritual sense. Because of the Fall, we are born subject to death, in a harsh environment where our own nature, without Divine grace, is not able to rise above the demands of survival and gratification.

Yet, we know we are meant to rise above these things. We know that something is wrong. We have a conscious awareness of a moral standard and a conscience; as lyrics by Pete Townsend put it (in “The Seeker”), “I’ve got values, but I don’t know how or why.” The whole human race has an inherent sense of right and wrong, and although that basic sense can be twisted and perverted, it is evidence in itself that the Fall is no mere idea, but a reality. St. Augustine said that Original Sin is a Christian dogma that no one can argue against, because the truth of it is obvious to everybody everywhere.

So, these readings contrast Fallen human weakness against Divine power. It is easy to misunderstand, as I said, why St. Paul used the word “flesh” to describe this weakness. If we look at the Old Testament we begin to grasp the Biblical Jewish mind of the Apostle. Hezekiah strengthened the resolve of his soldiers, who protected Jerusalem from the king of Assyria, with these words:

 “’Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him: With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles.’ And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah (II Chronicles 32:7,8).”

St. Paul spoke of the flesh as weak in his own words about spiritual warfare:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Corinthians 10:3-5).”

Above all, we have the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).”

So, the point is not a morbid one. The word “flesh” is not used in some Gnostic manner, as Marcion would have taught, to make us see creation itself as evil instead of as “very good (Genesis 1:31).” But, the flesh is weak in that human strength alone cannot rise above sin, and indeed cannot even really desire to.  In addition to having a conscience that, in everyone of any years, is burdened by moral failures against God and against other people, most individuals have the fear of facing God.

Although the eyes of God see everything even now, and always have since all eternity, think about what it will mean to have those eyes look through you into your very soul. On that Day His all-seeing gaze will penetrate you inescapably. How, when we have no place to hide and no distractions to give false comfort, will we bear the gaze of perfect holiness?
Listen to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ:

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God (John 3:19-21 RSV).” 

Darkness is the place of hiding from God, Who is the Light. Notice the contrast of plural and singular: “Everyone who does evil” and “He who does truth.” There it is, the One for the Many, as the Suffering Servant passage in the Book of Isaiah brings out so powerfully:

“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 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 (Isaiah 53: 4-6).”

That chapter concludes by saying, “And he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (v.12).” Picking up on that theme of the One and the Many (or of “everyone who does evil, and he who does truth”), St Paul wrote: “For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous (Romans 5:19).” We understand, I hope, that real guilt has been taken away on the cross where Jesus died. 

That very thing that is so weak became the instrument of our salvation, for we know that “the Word (Logos) was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14).” Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that is, God the Logos and eternally begotten Son who is One with the Father, shared our nature. He used that very human nature to practice what we could not: Perfect obedience. He alone of all the human race lived without sin. His conscience was never burdened with guilt, but only instructed by perfection. He had no fear of facing God, because he lived always in perfect fellowship with the Father. He used that same weak fleshly nature to die for our sins, and then overcame all its weakness when He rose again from the dead, never to die again. He gives us the promise of Divine power, to share His resurrection life when he comes again in glory.

Here and now
Yet here we are in this life. How do we have fellowship with God? If we come to the light even now, boldly into the presence of God, it is only through the One who does truth. The first Psalm tells of “the man” who walks in the Law of the Lord. That one Man is Jesus Christ. In Him we dare even now to approach the light, and come to the light. In Him, we do not fear that gaze of Perfection, of absolute holiness and goodness. It will not melt us or destroy us, and neither will it drive us away. We are compelled by the love He showed, mostly on the cross, to come without fear. “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”

And, we not only believe in the forgiveness of sins, but first we say, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” The flesh is weak, but we have been given Divine power by that Presence that is always with us. We can live for more than gratification and survival. That list of sins, that difficult but instructive passage about the “works of the flesh” is powerfully contrasted against the list that follows, “the fruit of the Spirit.” I believe in the Holy Ghost, and that is the Spirit Who gives us Divine power to become holy, to possess “love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, humility and self-control.”

The Prophet Jeremiah foretold the New Covenant. Jesus made clear reference to that same New Covenant when holding the cup of the New Covenant in His blood. We see in part of the prophetic foretelling of this Covenant what it means for each of us in our daily lives to believe in the Holy Ghost and in the forgiveness of sins: 

“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, 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 (Jeremiah 31:33,34).”

In a few minutes you will hear the words of Absolution, and then after that you will be invited to come forward and to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, that supper of the New Covenant. Everyday, each day, you can know as well the joy of “fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (I John 1:2)” by the Holy Spirit. You can come to the Light to confess your sins with the certainty of Divine forgiveness, and you can walk in the light with power to posses in yourself and demonstrate to everyone the love of God.

You need not rely on the weak arm of flesh; you have the power of the Holy Spirit.          

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