Preached October 14,2012
St. Matthew 9:1–8
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Why are we here on this earth? This is, of course, a question that has been asked by countless men through the ages, all seeking to understand why we are put here, what is our purpose? If we look about us today, our modern society gives many answers to this question, most of them along the lines of, “we are here to please ourselves, to have a good time.” The shallowness of such an answer is almost enough in itself to disprove the answer, but it is amazing the number of people who readily accept this answer.
But you are probably one of the smarter ones that have figured out that we are here to serve and glorify God, our Creator. So you set out to do that, but have you noticed just how hard that is to do on your own? Our best efforts to serve God, undertaken without God, always fall completely flat; we cannot do it. That is why the Collect for today begins with the phrase, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; we cannot do it without God. But rather, we must ask that He, direct and rule our hearts in all things through His Holy Spirit if we are to serve Him; this is the only way.
The entire Epistle lesson for today is an Exhortation to Purity and Holiness, a caution against sin; and against grieving the Holy Spirit. If we are going to live lives of service to God, giving glory to Him, then we must live lives pleasing to Him. Listen to what St. Paul says: Ephesians 4:17–19 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, 18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: 19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. It appears that a significant part of the Church at Ephesus was made up of converted Gentiles, rather than Jewish converts, and it is to these specifically that Paul is speaking. He is saying that the conversion to the Christian life must make a difference; being a Christian must result in changes in the way we live. They, and we, must not go forward simply doing whatever comes into our heads from our own un–reformed minds that know not the ways of God. You cannot be a Christian and continue to live exactly as you would have lived if you were not a Christian; if you think you can, then you are no Christian at all. There are many so–called “Christians” in the entertainment industry who fall victim to this illusion, but it will not work any better for them than it does for any of the rest of us.
St. Paul goes on to remind us what it means to be a Christian, Ephesians 4:20–22 But ye have not so learned Christ; 21 If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: 22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; He says that when we learned Christ, learned the Christian faith, we learned that we cannot live in the old ways any longer. If you have really learned the faith and accepted the truth of Jesus, then when you accepted the faith you renounced the old ways, which is the meaning of this somewhat strange phrase, That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man. Let me remind you of the words from the Baptismal Service, (BCP p. 277):
Q: Dost thou renounce the devil and his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?
A: I renounce them all; and by God’s help, will endeavor not to follow, nor be led by them.
In becoming members of the Church, we definitely do renounce the devil and all his works, and that should lead to a significant difference in the way we lead our lives. The fact that some forget this commitment and drift back into sin does not mean that the commitment was vain, or unnecessary.
But having put off the old man, then what? St. Paul continues in Ephesians 4:24–25 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. 25 Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. Having put off the old man, we put on the new man; St. Paul describes this almost like a matter of changing clothes! This new man is clothed in righteousness and true holiness, which means that he is radically changed from the man that existed previously. He has been made right with God through the blood of Jesus Christ which is what it means to be righteous. St. Paul says that this new man also has true holiness, and that is a bit tougher. That requires that we actually change the man, not simply cover his sins in the blood of Christ. Sanctification, the process of becoming holy, is required before we can come into the presence of God, and that requires real changes in each of us, changes that the Holy Spirit can accomplish but only through time.
One of the most central ingredients, an absolute necessity, is that we become completely truthful. There is simply no place for lies of any sort in holiness. As St.Paul describes it, we are all members one of another. Can you imagine your foot lying to your hand? On the one hand this seems so very obvious, and yet, on the other hand, this is such a great difficulty for so many in our world today. Look around you and listen closely. If you do, you will observe many people lying routinely, usually about trivial matters, but still not speaking the truth. For many people, lying is simply the standard mode of speech. They do it to avoid giving offense, to please people, to get what they want, for countless reasons or for no reason at all. But lying has no place in the service of God, in the development of holy lives.
Ephesians 4:26–27 Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: 27 Neither give place to the devil. This seems to be a difficult instruction! It appears likely that these two verses are to be considered together, the second being an admonition not to yield to sin as a result of anger. Anger is a sudden emotion, something that comes to all of us and really requires no description. Anger is sinful in the following circumstances:
(1.) When it is excited without a sufficient cause–when we are in no danger, and do not need it for a protection. When we should be safe without the adrenalin provided by anger.
(2.) When it transcends the cause, if any cause really exists. All that is beyond the necessity of immediate self-protection is wrong.
(3.) When it is against the person rather than the offence. The right object of anger is not to injure another; it is only to protect ourselves.
(4.) When it is attended with the desire of revenge. In this case, it is always wrong, (Rom 12:17,19).
(5.) When it is cherished and heightened by reflection. And
(6.) when there is an unforgiving spirit; a determination to exact the utmost satisfaction for the injury which has been done.
Ephesians 4:28–30 Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. 29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. 30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. Does it surprise you that we have thieves in the Church? Yes, we certainly do; although we hope that they are reformed. The key thing is that they now work to supply their own needs, and the needs of others, and St. Paul particularly says, work with his hands. In St. Paul’s day, almost all work was done with the hands, so he may, or may not, have been making a particular distinction here, but it often seems that troubled people do better working with their hands than with their heads. It often helps to have people coming back from a life in the underworld to work at carpentry, gardening, or other manual work. It leaves them tired, which is good, but it also produces a tangible result which they can appreciate. St. Paul’s instruction is true.
Some work places tend to breed rather vile language, the military being one of the worst. In the Navy, on shipboard, the air sometimes simply turns blue for hours. This gives rise to a truly depressing atmosphere for all involved, both Christians and non–Christians, whether they recognize the source of the problem or not. It also happens in many repair shops, offices, and factories. And of course, it can happen in a home, in front of the TV, when your favorite team fumbles the ball. St. Paul would describe all of this as language that is not of use for edifying the hearers, language that does not minister grace, because it is all spoken without God. It is language, spoken without remembering to whom we belong and whom we serve; who it is that has saved us, and to whom we owe all. When we utter such language, we do indeed grieve the Holy Spirit, the Comforter sent by Christ to guide us, and hold us fast in God’s Word, safe until the end.
In the Gospel lesson for today, we see an example of the scribes not seeking to serve God, but rather intent on serving their own ends. When the sick man is brought to Jesus by his friends, this is apparently the same healing that St. Mark describes as having the man delivered by letting him down through a hole in the roof. Because of the faith of the sick man and of his friends, Jesus forgives his sins. The scribes, in a most predictable fashion, reacted by saying that Jesus was blaspheming because to forgive sins was to set Himself equal to God. They are, to say the least, not guided by the Holy Spirit, but rather they are most typical of the Old Man, looking entirely to self interest. Jesus response is to say, “Which is easier, or which is harder, …?” to show that what He is about to do is really an equivalent action, an action that they would be forced to recognize as clearly coming from God. He then heals the sick man and directs him to take his bed and go home. The immediate effect on the crowd of onlookers is to astonish them, to cause them to praise God, and to give Him glory. The last phrase is interesting, “… which had given such power unto men.” It appears that they are still thinking of Jesus as a man, even if an extraordinary man, because they still have not grasped the mystery of the Incarnation. We have the benefit of looking back, so to speak, with most of the pieces in place, so the picture is much more complete for us.
If we are to hope to please God, we must have the aid of the Holy Spirit; we cannot do it on our own. The Old Man, even when confronted with Jesus Christ in person, does not hesitate to turn away to pursue selfish goals, to put self way out in front of God. Only with the guidance of the Holy Spirit acting in our hearts will we be led to do those things that make for a life pleasing to God. This is the way we develop personal holiness in our lives, by accepting the leading of the Spirit of God in all things.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.