Saturday, October 02, 2010

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

I Corinthians 1:4-7
Matthew 22:34-46

The Scriptures today speak of two related but distinct themes. Those themes are our justification and our sanctification. These two great themes summarize the whole life of a Christian. In case you think Fr. Hart has become capable of over statement or platitudes, let me repeat: The two great themes of justification and sanctification summarize the whole life of a Christian. These two themes tell us who we are, and what we ought to become. Both of these themes teach us to depend and rely on the grace of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Justification is the gift we have been given in the Risen Christ who died for our sins, and who, raised from the dead and glorified, forgives us and makes us children of His Father. Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit that transforms us into holy people, that is into saints. This requires our cooperation. But, both of these, justification and sanctification, come only by the grace of God.

We know part of the Gospel reading we heard today as “The Summary of the Law.” As we have covered several times, and as we teach in Confirmation classes, the Summary of the Law in the two Great Commandments of the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18) sums up what we call the two tables of the Law. Of the Ten Commandments the first four teach us to love God, and the remaining six teach us to love our neighbor. In case you need to have demonstrated to you just how Biblical the Book of Common Prayer is, look at how St. Paul speaks of the last six of the Ten Commandments:

For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Romans 13:9)

And, of course, we know that Jesus also gave us another version of that second Great Commandment.

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matt. 7:12)

And, this has come to be called “the Golden Rule.” In fact, the Lord reversed the negative summary of Hillel, the great Rabbi who lived before Him. Hillel was asked by a Gentile to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. He said, “Do not that which is odious to thy neighbor.” Jesus changed this into a positive summary, namely instead of telling us what not to do, which could be misinterpreted as allowing us to be passive or apathetic, He told us what to do. It takes effort to love thy neighbor; do to him what you would have him do to you. Love thy neighbor as thyself, as Moses had commanded, requires more than not offending your neighbor. It means doing what is good for him.

The Epistle reading we heard today seems, in this whole context, to be an ironic choice. It comes from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Church in Corinth. A few months ago Touchstone published an article I wrote in which I highlighted the great theme of that Epistle, which is that St. Paul wrote a very firm rebuke to them for their lack of charity. He wrote to the Church in Corinth to correct the selfish disregard that they exhibited for each other. Whatever themes you find in that Epistle, throughout most of it, the key that unlocks it is their lack of love for one another. In that article I wrote this:

“The alarming fact we must glean from the Epistle is that neither mystical and supernatural gifts nor orthodox doctrine were enough to keep the Corinthian Christians from being carnal, childish, divisive and utterly selfish. And, indeed, selfishness is the most apparent symptom of their carnality, addressed over and over again in several places. And, by Providence, it is that very selfishness that gave the occasion for St. Paul to write his most famous passage, the chapter on charity (chapter 13)… That beautiful chapter was a rebuke, meant not to inspire but to correct. It was written not to move with poetic sublimity, but to admonish with prophetic indignation. It was a fire lit to melt their frozen unloving, selfish hearts. Those hearts had taken good and holy things, the very gifts of God, and used them for selfish ends.”

It sounds so poetic: “though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity…faith, hope, charity abide, these three. But, the greatest of these is charity.” Read in its context, however, it was not a gentle greeting card passage, but a knock over the head.

And, yet, he opens the very same Epistle by telling them that they are all called to be saints, and then tells them every good thing he can think of about their life as Christians, as we heard today:

I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Can these be the same people he addresses in the rest of the Epistle? From this point on he lets them have it, rebuking them for being divisive, selfish, carnal, squabbling and infantile.

But, these are the same people. They have the grace of God as dear sons and daughters. The gifts they have demonstrate His work among them. But, they have not learned to love one another, and to put the needs of others above selfish interests. Even their practice of the faith is interwoven with utter selfishness, even the way they approach the Holy Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Read the Epistle. You would think he was writing to Continuing Anglicans.

Now, Paul is not denying their place in Christ. This is because of the reality of justification. But, he is not pleased with their conduct; and that is about sanctification. Ultimately, his hope is expressed as a bridge between the passage we heard today, and the painful verbal spanking that follows. In verse 9 he writes: “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” Confident in God’s faithfulness to them, he begins in the very next verse to turn them over his Apostolic knee, where he applies the board of education to the seat of learning. He does so with hope that it is worth the effort, because he knows that “God is faithful.”

When you hear the Summary of the Law, or the Golden Rule, I hope you do not imagine that you, somehow, live up to it. I trust that most of you would not be content to be like those early believers in Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing. Nonetheless, the Summary of the Law does not teach you what a good person you are. It teaches you that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Hear what St. Paul wrote to the Churches of Galatia:

But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:22-24)

If Paul could write to the Corinthians confident of God’s grace among them, then he must have had great confidence in God’s grace for these people, inasmuch as they sought to be faithful, but were troubled by false teachers discouraging them, and bringing them into a kind of bondage. In their case, he wanted to explain the purpose of the Law of Moses, the Torah, that is, the commandments of God.

First, the Law teaches you about justification. How does it do so? Because when you hear those words of the two Great Commandments of the Torah, you ought to realize that all your own delusions of self-righteousness have just melted away. Speaking for myself, I have never lived a day in which I have truly loved God to a point that meets that impossible standard. Nor have I loved my neighbor according to that high and impossible standard. I have done some good for some people, enough to feel holy, saintly and good; that is, until some so an’ so cut me off and made me miss my exit, about whom I may have breathed words that were not…liturgical.

The Law, when understood, teaches us that we need Christ and His cross, that we need the offering He made of Himself once for all, that we may be forgiven and justified. We come before God confessing our sins, and basing our faith on the cross of Christ where He offered Himself as the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world;” and so we are justified.

This gets us to the second part of the Gospel reading we heard today:

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his Son?

What was that about? Does not the opening of the same Gospel call Jesus Christ “the son of David, the son of Abraham” just before the list of names in His legally recognized noble genealogy? But, Jesus in this passage makes the Pharisees aware that Christ, or Messiah, is more than merely the inheritor of David’s throne. He is also David’s Lord.

The reason why Jesus alone has the power to save each of us to the uttermost, without need of anyone else’s alleged merits (which exist only in a blasphemous fantasy anyway), is because He is more than the Son of David-“Behold, a greater than Solomon is here.” (Matt.12:42) He is God of God, one with the Father, the only begotten Son, and He is with the Father in eternity, sent into the world as the One born of a virgin mother, fully human, like us in every respect, but without sin (see Hebrews 4:15).

Because of Who He is that died for us, justification is not a process. It is instant, given immediately because the price has been paid in full (John 19:30 τελω) by the Only One Who was able to pay it. But, sanctification, on the other hand, is a process. It is the life in which we grow in the virtues that come from the grace of God as the Holy Spirit works within us.

We are in Christ as baptized Christian people, and we abide in Christ because we have faith. All of this has been given to us. If St. Paul could be confident that the Christians of Corinth would grow into saints, because they were in Christ, and because the grace of God was evident among them, and because God is faithful, might he not be confident if he saw us?

Whatever your reason for being present among the people of the Church, I hope your highest reason is to worship God and to allow His grace to transform you. Make every effort to avail yourself of every means of grace, including the sacraments we have here, especially feeding on the Bread of Life.

The Scriptures today speak of two related but distinct themes. Those themes are our justification and our sanctification. These two great themes summarize the whole life of a Christian. The life we have been given is possible only due to the fact of justification. The life we have before us, that we must live, ought to be a life of sanctification. This is what it means to be in Christ, and, breath by breath as you go throughout life, to receive the grace of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

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