Preached August 19,2012
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.
Recall the words of 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. Our subject today is God’s mercy and pity on those who seek to follow Him.
At the beginning of today’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 15:1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; Paul is reminding the Corinthian Church to understand that the Gospel message that he has previously preached to them is true, it is something that it to be treated as a precious gift that has been received and must be treasured as such because it forms the ground on which they stand, their faith. If they cast it aside, or treat it carelessly, it will be like washing out the foundation from under their own feet. St. Paul goes on 1 Corinthians 15:2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. That last phrase there sounds a real note of warning, … unless ye have believed in vain. What does this mean? Recall the parable of the sower who sowed seed in the field. Some fell on the foot path and is trodden under foot and never comes up at all. Other seed falls in shallow soil and springs up quickly but soon withers because it has no root. Yet other seed falls among the weeds and is choked by the cares of the world. Only that seed that falls in good soil survives to yield a hundred fold increase. The first three cases show how there can be belief that is in vain because it does not endure and produce fruit.
1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; Notice that St. Paul does not say, “I taught you,” or “that which I was taught,” but rather the verbs are “delivered” and “received.”. The point is that the deposit of faith is being handed on intact, without addition or alteration, without modification or adulteration. What was received from Christ is what is being passed on to others. The purity of the transmitted Word is a matter of crucial importance, something that may easily escape us today since we are forced to read everything in translation. As he says in Galatians 1:12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
He then goes to the central point of the Christian faith, the Resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:3b how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: He is actually making two points here. The first is the fact of Christ’s death for the sins of mankind and His resurrection on the third day; without these, there is no Christian faith at all. The second point is that these events were both predicted long before hand by the ancient Hebrew prophets, so that this is all in fulfillment of ancient Hebrew prophecy. This is further evidence of the divinity of Christ for anyone who needs it.
1 Corinthians 15:5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. 7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. St. Peter was not the first person to see the risen Christ, but it appears that he was the first of the Apostles to see Him. This is mentioned in Luke 24:34 Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. There is no specific record of just when or where this appearance occurred. This is an indication of our Lord’s ready willingness to forgive Peter after his denial just three day’s earlier right before the Crucifixion.
Jesus appears to the disciples in the closed upper room, and eventually to the crowds on the mountainside, many of whom were still alive at the time that St. Paul was writing. Paul is making the point of the certainty of the Resurrection. The death by Crucifixion was a known fact, established by the Roman soldier who had pierced Christ’s side with a spear. It is important, however, to make it equally certain that this same Jesus Christ rose again from the dead and was seen by many throughout the region in the days following the Resurrection.
Tradition says that our Lord went to James and ordained him to become the head of the Church in Jerusalem. There is no clear record of this, but we do know that from the beginning, St. James did preside over the Jerusalem Church as recorded in the Book of Acts.
1 Corinthians 15:8–9 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. Notice the sequence here: first to Peter, then the twelve, then the five hundred, then James, the Apostles, and finally, last of all, to St. Paul himself. This shows the mercy of God, first to Peter who had so recently denied the Lord even though he had been the first to confess Him, finally coming last to Paul who had himself persecuted the Church. Paul realizes that he is completely unworthy to be called an Apostle, just as a child not rightly conceived may not be considered a part of the family.
St. Paul continues 1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. He recognizes his weakness, his terrible failing as one who actively persecuted the Church; he does not seek to minimize this. He recognizes that it is only because of God’s grace poured out upon him that he is able to do anything useful at all. Without that grace, he would still be Saul, the great enemy of the Church, seeking to destroy the Church wherever he could find it, and he is intensely aware of this.
At this point, St. Paul says something that sounds a bit prideful, but I laboured more abundantly than they all: and I have to confess to always being somewhat put off when St. Paul makes a statement like this as he does in a number of places. It sounds like he is really blowing his own horn, bragging about what a terrific job he has done. The redeeming aspect of this comes when we couple it with the next phrase and read it all together: but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. It is not Paul that has done the great things, but rather the grace of God that was working through him that has accomplished great things. This is a subtle point, and it is an easy trap to fall right into. We do know, of course, of Paul’s great missionary journeys that established the Church throughout most of the then known world with the exception of north Africa. He did work hard and endured much for the Lord.
1 Corinthians 15:11 Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed. He goes on to say that the Gospel is the same, whether they have heard it from him or from one of the other Apostles, and that it is the Gospel, this same Gospel from any of these sources, that must be believed for salvation.
If we have received God’s forgiveness and we truly have Christian faith, this should express itself first and foremost in a life of prayer. Do we pray? How do we pray? Our Gospel lesson for today is an example of the prayers of two men, the Pharisee and the Publican. It is a familiar story. The Pharisee prayed, thanking God that he was such a good fellow, so much better than other men, so much better than that Publican over there. The Publican kept his eyes downcast and quietly smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. The Publican does not seem to have noticed the Pharisee at all, at least he says nothing about him. We may say, well, I am neither a Pharisee nor a Publican, so that really does not relate to me. But that is not true, because in our hearts, each of us appears just as one, or the other, of these men appeared before God that day. It does not matter how we are dressed, it does not matter what the name on our Church building is; nothing matters but the appearance of our hearts as we come before God when we pray.
In thinking about the matter, the Beatitudes immediately come to mind, particularly Matthew 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Pope Benedict XVI has called the Beatitudes “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure,” (Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI, p. 74). This suggests that the meek person, the person poor in spirit, such as the Publican, is the Christ–like person who will be heard by God the Father. Conversely, the very un–Christ–like person, such as the proud Pharisee, who exhibits none of the characteristics described in the Beatitudes, is the person whose prayers will not be heard. They really were not intended to be heard by God, because they were said for his own enjoyment in the first place. The proud man is speaking much more to himself, telling himself what a swell fellow he is, and if God hears, well that is OK, but that is really secondary for his purposes.
Speaking of the Publican, our Lord says, Luke 18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. To be abased is to be brought low, to be humbled. Justified means to be made right with God, to be forgiven. This is the mercy of God. The prayers of the Publican were heard. I suppose that we could say that the prayer of the Pharisee was heard also, but there was nothing to be answered. He asked for nothing because he was convinced that he needed nothing. How foolish could a man be?
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.