Preached March 18, 2012
St. John 6:1–14
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare from the beginning of the Introit as it was familiar to the Church in Latin. The first part of the Introit is taken from the prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 66:10-11a Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her: That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations;
The word Laetare is the Latin imperative, Rejoice ye, telling the Church to rejoice at the approach of Easter; we are half way there! Just for today, the heaviness of our Lenten journey is lifted, and the mood is lightened a bit that we may be encouraged to press on to the end of the journey.
Consider first the operative words of the Collect for the Day: Grant … that we who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved … There is no question about our guilt; we are guilty. But we still hope through the mercy of God to avoid the punishment that is so rightfully ours. We here today are not the first people to think these thoughts. They have been on the minds of men through the ages. We are reminded of the jailer when he thought that Paul and Silas had escaped and then discovered them still there and he says, Acts 16:30b Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
The Church at Galatia was one that had wandered away from the Gospel and was in deep trouble. The Galatians had initially received the Gospel of Christ, but then had been diverted from it by a group known as the judiazers. The judiazers were essentially Jewish missionaries of a sort, people who set out to convince the early Christians that they could not really become Christians without first becoming Jews. The judiazers wanted to impose the full Jewish ceremonial law, dietary law, as well as the moral law on these early Christians, that is, to make them full–fledged Jews. The entire letter to the Galatians is written in response to this error and to correct it.
St. Paul uses five lines of argument in making his point, the fact that their error leads to eternal damnation, whereas the Gospel leads to salvation. Our Epistle lesson for today is comprised of the last of those arguments.
St. Paul begins by reminding the Galatians of the story of the birth of Ishmael and Isaac, one the son of the bond woman and the other the son of a free woman. The bond woman is Hagar, whom he identifies with Mount Sinai in Arabia, the place of the giving of the Law and the Old Covenant. He says that Hagar and her children answer to Jerusalem which now is and is in bondage meaning that Hagar and her children represent the Jews of that current time who are under the Law and the Old Covenant. This is a difficult point in the allegory, because the Jews would surely insist that they were descended from Sarah and Isaac, not from Hagar and Ishmael. But St. Paul is very specifically identifying the Jews with Hagar and her children in bondage with the Jerusalem that now is, meaning the Jews that live in that day and prevailing Mosaic Law.
He then begins to speak about the new Jerusalem that is above, that is free, and that is the mother of us all, This last phrase, mother of us all, refers to the fact that the new Jerusalem is open to all, not just to the Jews, pointing again the idea that there is no need to first be a Jew before you can be saved. He says that the new Jerusalem is identified with Sarah, Isaac, and their lineage, and he does so by quoting Isaiah 54:1 Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD. You will notice that the wording is not quite exactly what was read in the Epistle lesson, but this is the source nevertheless.
It is at this point that St. Paul specifically identifies the Church with Sarah’s line when he says, Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. He has identified the Jews, those who are under the Law, as the children of Hagar. We, the Church, are the children of the promise, not under the Law, and are the children of Sarah.
Then St. Paul gets around to his prescription for the matter by again quoting Scripture. Our lesson says:
Galatians 4:30 Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
St. Paul is quoting …
Genesis 21:10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. That was Sarah speaking to Abraham.
What Paul is telling the Galatians is that they must cast out those who would turn them to Judaism, trying to make them heirs of the bondwoman, instead of the free woman. The solution is simple: the judiazers must be purged from their company. There are times when we simply have to ask people to leave us, and this is such a case.
The gist of the problem of the Galatians is with us yet today, not necessarily in the form of judiazers, but in the form of various forces that tempt us to false religion of all sorts. We have heard the true Gospel of Christ, but we are tempted every day to replace it with something else. As easy as the Christian Gospel is, it is also one of the most difficult things in the world for men to accept.
One of the ancient heresies that seems to be thriving these days in Gnosticism, the idea that there is secret knowledge that one can acquire that gives you an advantage over others in spiritual matters. The word Gnosticism derives from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism peddles the idea that there is secret knowledge, hidden knowledge that is not available to all, that gives the possessor greater spiritual insight and power. This is the basis for everything from Tarot cards, palmistry, mediums, to the Free Masons. All of these things compete with the Church in some way or other as sources of knowledge about God and salvation.
It seems to me that pride is the besetting sin of our age, the sin that overwhelms all others, even though there are many. Because of pride, we think that we must win our salvation for ourselves, by our own efforts. We would not have it any other way! We are a proud, self–sufficient people, we tell ourselves. (Strangely, we tell ourselves this at the same time that we demand that our government do more for us, provide more for us, look after us from cradle to grave, but we fail to see the contraction there!) But salvation through Christ requires humility, the willingness to admit our total inability to save ourselves, to do anything at all about the sorry state of our souls, and to stake all our hope on the mercy of Christ. This is a very difficult thing for us, proud people, to do.
This by no means exhausts the ways that we can turn aside from the true faith of Jesus Christ. The discussion could go on and on, but I trust that you will think more about the matter for yourselves. Remembering that it is only by holding fast to the faith of Jesus Christ that we can find salvation, let us pray again the Collect for the Day:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that we who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may be relieved. Though our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.