Saturday, November 12, 2011

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity

Ephesians 6:10-20 * John 4:46-50

“Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.”

Why is this story even written, inasmuch as it is nowhere near as spectacular as the really dramatic miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead? What was the Apostle John thinking? And, yes, we believe he was guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit; but, inasmuch as that inspiration was to his mind and reason, it is right to ask what John was thinking.
          Like the healing of the centurion’s servant, this is the kind of miracle all too easy for a skeptic to dismiss. So, we must learn why each of those stories is included in the Gospels. The centurion’s story is not very spectacular either; but what it teaches us about faith is. This story seems to be addressing more the subject of faith than anything else.
          What we read seems contradictory at first glance. “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” Is this a rebuke? Is the Lord displeased? If so, He doesn’t show displeasure. If needing to see a sign was a weakness, then the Lord gave the weak man what he needed most.
          Near the end of John’s Gospel we see the resurrected Christ saying to Thomas, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed (20:29).” Is this a rebuke? That seems unlikely, inasmuch as it was the will of God for the Apostles all to be eyewitnesses of His post resurrection appearances.
          As terrible as this may seem to the advocates of “tough love,” it seems very obvious that Christ was making allowance for human weakness, even a weakness in faith. To Him it is not great faith that is necessary, but only faith as small as a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6). People who present themselves to others as possessing great faith generally are those of little faith, little in quantity and quality. Even a grain of mustard seed is much larger, and that is because it is real.
          One of the ways in which the popular American “faith & prosperity” message does damage is in convincing true believers that they don’t have enough faith to please God; otherwise, the logic runs, they would be in perfect health all the time, they would have no economic problems, and they would always be happy all the time. That kind of religion doesn’t produce faith, but rather it demands a show, an outward presentation of a jolly, successful and happy life; people who belong to such churches can show no sign of weakness (no wonder they have no confession of sin), and risk being on the outside if they do. So, in the place of faith, they learn hypocrisy and denial.
          Their error is a reflection of a very old one. Those who think they can earn salvation by the accumulation of merits never know if they have accumulated enough. Those whose faith must be great never know if their own is great enough. None of them can have any assurance that their sin is forgiven, and that they will inherit eternal life.
          But, in the Church as established by Christ, there is no need to impress each other; and the sacrament of Confession and Absolution is for everybody, even bishops and other clergy. Simply put, there is no room for pride, including the pride of being “spiritual” and “fervent in faith” to all outward appearance.
The passage we read from Ephesians warns of the danger we face if we forget we are in a spiritual battle. We are not told to go boldly about proclaiming our own “victory” in life as we enter into battle; but, instead to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand against the wiles of the Devil. Armor is made to protect us because of our weakness and mortality. 
Back in the 80s, as the people of one church I belonged to were awaiting a bus to Washington D.C. for the March for Life, we allowed some Pentecostals to meet at our church and use the same bus. They decided to pray with us, and one of them went through a very theatrical prayer in which she attacked the forces of Hell with alarming self-confidence. After she had her say to God, and to all the forces of Hell, I asked everyone to turn to the General Confession, and asked the rector (I was not yet a priest) to follow with the Absolution. For, I knew that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
When we were present in Washington at that event, several speakers were on a platform, and a rabbi was asked to lead prayers. His words included, “O God, our hands have not shed this blood…” But, looking at that vast crowd I could not accept his words. His prayer was empty as long as he boasted (and I know of a number of Christian clergy who would say, essentially the same thing he did). We must never pray thus to ourselves, “I thank Thee God that I am not as other men are (Luke 18:11).” Some of those people had indeed shed this blood; some had indeed paid for or received abortions. But, they had repented and gone to God for forgiveness. That was part of why they had come.
The point John was making was very simple. When Jesus said, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe,” indeed, He was not pleased with that. But, God is gracious. This brings us into deeper things that must be understood. I have said before: Beware of a religious teaching that says that life is a test. Life is not a test. Life is a shipwreck. If life is a test we all have failed already.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one…But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus (Romans 3:10-12, 21-26).”

So, you see, life is not a test. We did not need an examiner, and we do not need a grade. The grade we each and everyone receive is “F.” We don’t need proof that we were born as fallen creatures given to sin and death. Jesus did not come into the world to grade our report cards. He came to this shipwreck to rescue us from sin and death. It is called the grace of God; it is called mercy; it is the manifestation of the love of God meeting us at the point of our real need, even if we do not perceive our need at all. It is summarized in those words of Jesus that each of you should know:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16, 17).

It seems so simple, so basic; and so why do we lose sight of it? Because we are in a spiritual war, and the main weapon of our common enemy is deception. It is good and right to preach about sin, because we also have the message of mercy and forgiveness. The world today doesn’t want to hear about forgiveness. They want instead to have Divine approval stamped on every choice they have ever made or will make. Until they recognize that sin is still sin, but also that repentance and confession bring about forgiveness and healing, as a priest I can do nothing for them.
God met us in our weakness, at the point of our real and greatest need. That is why He poured out His life on the cross, letting His blood be shed as the one perfect offering, the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. It is why he did not cast off His human nature, but rose from the dead to remain one of us forever. It is why He met the need of a man who needed to see signs and wonders to believe, and healed his son. It is why he gives mercy to you. It is why he came into the world.

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