Saturday, August 09, 2008

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

II Corinthians 3:4-9
Mark 7:31-37

He maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.

Have you ever doubted the kind intentions of spouse, brother, parent, or friend; given voice to that doubt, and then discovered how wrong you were? It is a fairly normal sort of embarrassment that most people have experienced at one time or other. What can we do but apologize, knowing that it probably caused more hurt than a direct insult, or just about any other kind of offense? We can all too easily let ourselves have this kind of doubt about not only people, but God. I know what it is to express frustration, even a bit of anger, thinking that God himself has let me down, only to feel very foolish when it was clear to me how much the opposite was true. He did provide and meet every need, even though I thought not, and doubted his very goodness, right up until a startling fact became clear: The need had been met by providential kindness before I thought to ask. God does not deal with us as we deserve; but, instead provides for our needs, forgives our sins, and bears us patiently.

Today's Epistle must seem quite enigmatic to modern ears. How can the ministration of death and condemnation be glorious? The Letter, that is the Letter of God's holy law, gives us no safe haven, but rather condemns everyone as a sinner. Indeed, it exposes the truth that we do not want to see.

Jesus said: "
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." (John 3:19-21)

Look carefully at those words. Note the contrast between the One and the many, that same distinction we see in the Suffering Servant passage (Isaiah 53:12): "He bore the sin of many." The One and the many, from these words of the prophet, were given exegetical treatment by St. Paul, writing to the Church in Rome:

"But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 5:15-21)

When Jesus spoke of the many, that is, "everyone that doeth evil," he compared the many to the One, to Himself: "But he that doeth truth." Who else, in heaven and earth among all the children of Adam, can these words speak of? "But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." This is why it is necessary to reject the false translation of Psalm One as it appears in the Episcopalian's 1979 Prayer Book. That version says "Happy are they who..." But, the correct translation is "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful." From ancient times, the Church has taught that "the man" in that first Psalm is Jesus Christ our Lord, alone without sin.

By God's grace, we are able to do good works that he has prepared for us to walk in (Eph. 2:8-10, provides the basis for these words). But this is because we receive grace through faith, and by that grace are laborers together with God. This is only possible because of the Holy Spirit. Look at the astonishing words of Articles XII and XIII:

XII. Of Good Works.

Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

XIII. Of Works before Justification.

Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of the Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

We fear to come to the light, because even our best works are not free of sin. Unless they are works of genuine charity, they profit us nothing. That famous chapter on love, the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, is often perceived with sentimentality as if it were a beautiful poem. But, the truth is, that chapter exposes the helplessness of our condition- that is, helpless unless God's grace is working within us. That chapter tells us that we must depend on the Holy Spirit to form within us the virtues that belong to the character of the Man, Jesus our Lord. It exposes our need for his grace.

"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."

I look at that, and see that I have no hope if I must justify myself. Remember the Pharisee we read about only last week? He stood in the temple and prayed, but nonetheless, he hid from the light; he feared to come to the light, and hated the light. He congratulated himself by comparing himself to notorious sinners- "even like this publican." This comparison is safe, and helps us hide from the light, that light that blinded another Pharisee who approached Damascus to persecute the Church; and gave him better vision as a new creature.

To approach the light is very painful, which is why the Church advises us to pray before making a confession of sin, that we will be able to make a bold and true confession. We fear to let the light of God's holiness, as he reveals it in his word, shine on us. We would rather feel righteous by our own efforts, comparing ourselves to others instead of measuring our sin by God's standard. Compared to the notorious sinners I might, on a good day, feel good about myself. But compared to Christ, the Man who is perfectly righteous, I cannot approve of my own thoughts, words and deeds.

This is quite normal really. But, we must overcome that fear, approach the painful, burning, blinding light by approaching it through the Man. This we can do, for we are "in Christ." And, he, the man Christ Jesus, comes into the light boldly because he is perfectly righteous. I have no strength in my flesh to endure the light, because I know that the glorious ministration of condemnation and death, by the Letter of the Law, will slay me. But, in Christ I have hope; "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory."

To understand these things we need the same Christ to touch us who healed the hearing of the deaf man, and his impediment of speech. Like that man, we are unable to hear the truth and to speak God's word, unless Christ heals us. The Good News is this: He forgives us and makes us into new creatures. He provided for our need, our greatest need, when we did not even know to ask for his salvation.

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