Preached August 15th, 2010
1 Corinthians 15:1–11
St. Luke 18:9–14
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The first half of the Trinity season, extending through the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, presents the Christian life in an orderly fashion. It began with five Sundays devoted to the Love of God and His relation to man. This is then followed by five Sundays on Duty, man’s relation to God. The two remaining Sundays which we have now come to deal with the doctrine of Grace, to show how the Love of God that imposes Duty also makes possible the fulfillment of that Duty, it not only constrains but it enables. Thus the whole series is summed up in the three words: Love, Duty, and Grace.
We first learn of the Love of God when we begin to understand our Baptism. It was only because of God’s Love that we were received as sons by adoption, received into the baptismal covenant. With that reception, we incurred the duties of sonship, the duty to follow His Commandments and live and serve as sons of God. But we quickly learn that we are not able to do this on our own; the task is too great for us. It is only through the Grace of God that we are enabled to continue on in His Kingdom, Grace that is called forth by constant prayer.
The presentation of the Christian faith then we see has proceeded, as it must, along the lines that the Love of God binds us to Duty, and Duty demands Grace. Today, the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, we will look at our need for Divine Mercy and Grace. Next Sunday will look at the sufficiency of God to provide for our needs.
In speaking of the Gospel of Mercy, St. Paul tells the Corinthians that in order that it may be effective for them, they must first receive it, that is, they must internalize it, and they must stand upon it, meaning that it must become the basis of their lives. Until they do this, it is not really theirs in the full sense of the word, and will not be effective in changing their lives. He makes it clear that he has given them exactly what he received, meaning that he invented nothing. In order to pass on the truth, only that which has been received can be passed on, without addition or modification. Thus it is not his creation, but rather the received Gospel, that which is based on the absolute fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is something to be preserved in memory, exactly as it was received.
St. Paul goes on to recite the essential facts of the Gospel story: First that Christ died for the sins of all in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. This is the first fact enumerated, a key element without which everything else falls apart. He mentions the burial of Christ which is certification of the actual death of Christ, an answer to those who would say that He did not really die on the Cross. He mentions the Resurrection in accordance with Old Testament prophecy, particularly Hosea 6:2 After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight and elsewhere. For us who believe, the Resurrection of Christ means that there is in fact Grace here in this life, and that the power of death is broken so that there is glory hereafter.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that all of these actions where witnessed by many people. The risen Christ was seen by Peter, by the disciples, by about 500 on one occasion, by James, and finally by Paul himself. There can be no doubt that Christ Himself was in fact risen from the dead, just as there was no doubt that He was in fact crucified on the Cross. There simply cannot be any basis for doubting the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Gospel of Grace is both external to us, in order that we may cling to it, and internal to us in that it may work within us. It works within us to produce our Christian character, to make us the kind of Christians that we are to be. St. Paul talks about how this has worked within his own life. He freely admits to his sin in persecuting the Church, but also says that because of the call he has received, he has, through the grace of God, produced more fruit for the Gospel than all of the other evangelists. He is not the man he could have been had he not persecuted the Church, but at least through God’s grace he has been led to do much good work, with the end result that many now believe.
Our Gospel lesson for today is the familiar parable of the Pharisee and Publican. It teaches an absolutely essential truth regarding the necessity of a deep sense of sin and humility in order to receive grace and mercy.
The Pharisee is a familiar sight in Jesus’ teaching, not so much in the way he is dressed, but in his manner of bearing, his way of life. The Pharisee is the one who was always fixated on the strict observance of the Law, the careful, scrupulous observance of every minute detail of the Law, in order that he might be perfect according to the Law. Having done all that the Law required, the Pharisee was necessarily a proud man, for this was a major accomplishment, something few men could achieve. Thus when the Pharisee goes to pray, he thanks God for his many virtues, for his great accomplishments, for the fact that he is not like other men who are less perfect. It is a litany of his own perfections, and the absence of any vices or failing whatsoever. He thinks that he is praying, but in fact he is only witnessing to his own merits. He asks God for nothing, because he cannot imagine that there is anything that he lacks, and since he asks for nothing, he receives nothing at all from God.
The other man in the parable is the Publican, one of the despised tax collectors who worked for the Roman government. Such a man, although himself a Jew, would be considered an outcast and an oppressor of his own people since he worked for the Romans. His words and actions reveal his understanding of his situation: Luke 18:13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. He does not go to the front of the Temple where he can make a show of being seen; unlike the Pharisee, that is not what the Publican is here for at all. Whereas the Pharisee had stood tall and announced all of his virtues, the Publican speaks quiety, with his eyes turned down, and strikes his breast in a gesture of contrition.
The contrast between the way the two men approach God could scarcely be more glaring! The Pharisee comes in his great pride, while the Publican comes in sorrow and humility. The Pharisee sees in himself only perfection, so that there is really nothing to apologize for, nothing to repent of, only a small amount of gratitude to express because he thinks he did most of this by his own effort. The Publican knows that he has much to atone for, much to ask to be forgiven, and he says, God be merciful to me a sinner. What a remarkable difference!
The prayer of the Pharisee is the prayer of arrogance and indifference, to which God says, “you have your reward now.” The prayer of the Publican is the prayer of one in need, and the reply of the Lord is Grace, Grace to forgive the sins and provide a new beginning.
We have another comparison to make here as well. Remember this Pharisee, and then think about the other former Pharisee who has spoken to us this morning, St. Paul. Paul had been a Pharisee, just like all of the others, but then he had experienced a great internal change when he had the vision on the Damascus Road. As Paul has said in the Epistle lesson this morning, he sees himself as not all that he could have been, but everything good that he is, he ascribes to Grace. Thus the Grace of God has changed the life of St. Paul, while the Pharisee of the parable remains just as always.
In our Collect for the Day, we are reminded that there is no conflict between God’s mercy and His divine power. Rather, showing mercy is one of the principal signs of the power of God. We ask for grace in proportion to our needs as we advance on the path of our sanctification to the end that we obtain the goal, our Heavenly home. With this in mind, let us pray again the Collect for the Day:
O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.