July 9, 2017
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 145; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
We live in a culture that places a high premium on intellectual performance, on reason and rationality. It is founded on the declaration by the French philosopher Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” Which raises some important questions about those whose minds don’t work as well or in the same way as the majority culture thinks they should. I spent the last 15 ½ years of my professional life working with people who live with brain injuries, dementia, or severe persistent mental illness. One of the first, and most formative articles I read in my time at Selkirk Mental Health Centre was titled, “Where is God when the mind is ‘out’?” I think a large part of the stigma faced by people who live with a mental illness is based in fear of the mind that is “out” and cultural assumptions about those who are different. And yet those people were some of the strongest and bravest people I have ever met.
If you’ve parented or grand-parented small children, you know that you can’t always rely on reason. You don’t launch into a detailed analysis of safety and hazards and the possible consequences of action, or the physics of why what you’re about to do might not be a good idea. Instead it’s “Hot!” “Put that down!” “Come down from there right now!” We know how terribly frustrating and draining this can sometimes be. On the other hand, living with small children gives you new insights and delight in perceiving the world from a different point of view, from the point of view of experience and imagination. Instead of explaining, you demonstrate. Instead of rationalizing, you act. Instead of analyzing, you simply receive.
Our cultural emphasis on rational understanding inevitably spills over into our approach to faith. Think of the way most of us adults received our Christian formation. Well, for starters, it wasn’t called formation; it was called education. It was limited to what the church and its leaders and teachers thought we needed to know – bible stories, the Lord’s Prayer, and when we got a bit older, the Creeds, sacraments, and major doctrines of the faith. Children were not included in full participation in the Eucharist because they didn’t understand. In fact, when I was a child, not all parishes welcomed children at the altar even for a blessing, because “the next thing you know they’ll be wanting Communion!” My confirmation preparation, like many of yours, focussed on the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. We even had an exam, and I won the prize for the highest mark (it was a New Testament). Even as adults, we still tend to define growth in faith in terms of learning about God and understanding the bible and Jesus’ teachings. Meanwhile, we risk losing some solidly scriptural realities like repentance and conversion, grace and faith.
Thankfully, here at St. Peter’s we have begun to shift our emphasis. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd aims to give children a direct experience of God through the love of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. It’s not just knowing about; it’s knowing. The child comes to an awareness that they are known and loved deeply and intimately, and through that love they come to know the God who is revealed in Jesus. And if it’s true that “a little child shall lead them”, then this is a gift not just for our children, but for the whole church.
Now, I’m not saying that learning and understanding are not important. They are, but they are only one component of our spiritual pilgrimage. We are called to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we need to balance all four. The problem is that learning and understanding do not necessarily, in and of themselves, produce behavioural change. If they did, we would all be home free. Simply sign up for enough courses, earn enough credits, and your salvation would be assured. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, grace doesn’t work that way.
Witness the apostle Paul, a well-educated and learned man who had sat at the feet of some of the greatest rabbis of his day. He could debate both Jews and Gentiles on their own terms. He was skilled at adapting his methods to bring home his message to each audience. He occasionally cited his credentials as proof of his authority, and yet he claimed that such an exercise was folly. And here he is today saying, “I don’t understand my own actions!” I want to do what is good, but instead I end up doing what is evil. I know that the Law is good; why then do I not follow my own judgement and obey the Law?
We might be tempted to think that Paul is exaggerating, perhaps overstating the case to make his point. Surely no one is really that helpless. No one always and inevitably does the evil they wish to avoid. We do from time to time love each other as we intend. We do create something worthwhile and good through our efforts.
It’s important to read this passage from Romans in its context. We’ve been following this letter for the past several weeks, but without much reflection because some preachers chose to focus on other readings! So let’s backtrack a bit. In the sixth chapter of his letter, sometimes called the “Gospel according to Paul”, Paul has rejected the suggestion that, since grace abounds, we can cheerfully continue in sin since grace will always win the day. Not so, he says. Those who are baptized have been transferred from the realm of sin to a new life in Christ. Having been set free from sin, those who are “in Christ” are now servants (literally slaves) to righteousness and are called to live as those who have been brought from death to life. He goes on in chapter eight to say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do…”
Paul is not keeping a record of good deeds and bad deeds, nor is he denying that people do good things. Rather, he is describing a condition, a civil war in himself which leaves its mark even on his best efforts. Paul knows there is a division, a conflict within himself, between what he knows and wills on one hand, and what he does on the other. This alienation in himself Paul calls sin. It is a condition of the human person, not an occasional act.
One result of this division between will and action is to highlight both the strength and the limitations of the law. The law sets forth what is right. A healthy mind and conscience can easily and gladly agree with its goodness. Moses said to the people of Israel, “Keep the commandments and you will live.” But the law also exposes the serious discrepancy between what is acknowledged as good and right, and what is actually done. The good inclination within a person can recognize what is right, but in a sinful world, the inclination to evil still dominates human choice and action. Ironically, it is those who know the law best who are most conscious of their bondage. No amount of self-knowledge or sheer determination can bring our behaviour into conformity with our intentions. The law is powerless to set us free.
Thus Paul’s despairing cry: “Who will rescue me?” Where can we put our confidence? Not in the law, not in our own efforts – then where? And he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The resolution of the conflict comes through the grace of God at work in Christ Jesus. Our confidence is built in and based wholly on Christ. What kind of confidence is this?
- To know Jesus is to know the Father, the source of all things and lover of humankind. To look into the eyes of Christ is to look into the heart of creation and into the love by which all other loves are named. The law hedged this knowledge about with ordinances and stipulations. But now the law has given way to the Word made flesh, and the veil is stripped away. The great I Am who terrified Moses, drove prophets into a frenzy and pronounced judgement on the people who betrayed the covenant has revealed a love which will weep for a friend, take children on its lap, and die on a cross for love of all. The God whom no mortal may see and live has entered our house and sat down to dinner with us.
- This is a confidence that binds people together in a world that seeks to divide. It is not a bond between lawgiver and subject, but between parent and child. Our is not the confidence that comes with attaining a Ph.D., but a confidence built on experience, the sort of confidence that finds it wise to love one’s enemy and to die for the unrighteous.
- Our confidence is grounded in a relationship whose burden is light and whose yoke is sweet to bear. There is nothing obscure or heavy about coming home, nor do we need a course in homecoming to rejoice in the sight of a beloved face. Christians need not fear death because the lover of all humanity has trampled it in the dust. Christians can dance with creation because the lover of all has exorcised it of the demons with which we have invested it. Christians feast with splendour at a table at which the creator of all has become both host and food, given that all might live.
If the way of sin is the way of death, because of Jesus Christ there is healing and life. He transforms flesh, that is, human nature opposed to God, into spirit, that is, human nature aligned with and in harmony with God’s purposes. Our faith in him is not a matter of spitting on our hands and working harder to make ourselves whole. It is about finding rest from the impossible task of saving ourselves. It is a growing awareness and grateful appreciation for the one who is working in us to make us fully human and whole, Jesus C