As most of you know, I am the liturgical officer for our diocese, something that Bishop Orji bestowed upon me relatively early into my time as rector of this parish. He knew that All Saints is very intentional about having a beautiful approach to liturgy. He knew that this is an area of our religious tradition for which I have a passion. In fact, I have memories of sitting in Episcopal churches as a child, flipping through the Prayer Book, and pondering its contents. For example, I very specifically recall at about the same age as my daughter, Leah, sitting in church while comparing the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, and trying to figure out why we used the Nicene Creed but never the Apostles’ creed on Sundays.
We do indeed have a wealth of prayers at our fingertips, prayers that enrich our understanding of God and the Church, and prayers that are some of the most beautiful prose in the English language. For my money, today’s Collect, the Collect for the 12th Sunday After Trinity, is one of the best:
Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve; Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but though the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
God is indeed always ready to hear us, even when we’re not ready to talk to him. As much as I know the value of prayer, how often do I find myself reluctant to come before the throne of Grace? Perhaps I’m bothered by my own sin and find myself ashamed to seek the Lord. Perhaps I’ve got a lot on my plate and don’t want to take the time to do my Office. Perhaps I deceive myself, saying, “I’ll get to it later,” full-well knowing that later will never come. Perhaps frivolous distractions, such as my Facebook or Twitter feeds have grabbed my attention and I’d rather get the dopamine hit of doom scrolling or checking for new likes rather than getting true nourishment for my soul.
I daresay just about all of us have can say the same. All of us know what it’s like to seek lesser goods rather than the ultimate good.
Yet God is merciful. God loves to hear our prayers despite our unworthiness. God’s goodness is constant despite our fickleness. In his commentary on this collect, liturgical historian Massey Shepherd notes:
A sense of unworthiness often deters us from prayer, even makes us afraid of it; yet it is only through prayer that our sins may be forgiven, and, more than that, an ‘abundance of mercy’ beyond our imagining awaits those seeking Him who is ever ready to hear and pardon.
The week before last the Old Testament lessons in the old 1662 daily lectionary took us on a whirlwind tour of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. In an atypical move for this lectionary, we covered a 48-chapter book in about five days. While I was disappointed that the lectionary cut out most of the Apocalyptic chapters with their fun and odd imagery (such as Ezekiel’s wheel-within-a-wheel angelic visions, or the Valley of Dry Bones), I found it fascinating that the lectionary zeroed in on God’s pointed statements about the importance of repentance. We read several chapters that reminded us that God will not punish a righteous man for his father’s sins, nor cut a wicked man slack because he had a righteous father. As we read in Ezekiel 18:20:
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
But we were also told that the formerly-righteous man who apostatizes into wickedness will be held accountable for his wickedness. Similarly, the formerly-wicked man who repents and changes his ways will be counted as a righteous man. After all, in that same chapter, God goes on to say:
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways and live?
On the one hand, this is very encouraging. On the other hand, it can be very sobering. We see that we have the responsibility to turn from our sins and to continue in walking in obedience to the Lord and his Law. I daresay that we all know folks who have indeed been radically changed by the Lord and turned from a life of destruction to a life of faithfulness. But we all also know many who have walked away from the faith. And that is indeed a sobering thought. It speaks highly of our responsibility as Christians. I’m reminded of some of the verses from the 1st Lesson at this morning’s Matins from the Apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus in which Ben Sirach writes:
Say not thou, It is through the Lord that I fell away: for thou oughtest not to do the things that he hateth … Before man is life and death; and whether him liketh shall be given him. … He hath commanded no man to do wickedly, neither hath he given any man license to sin.
We do have responsibility before the Lord. Even as our Articles of Religion affirm St. Augustine’s doctrine of Election, which says that God chooses us for life if we’re his, we do not affirm the perverse corollary that God is somehow responsible if we choose sin over him. God is not the author if evil.
This is why we should go to the Lord in prayer, the way that our Collect says. It is true that we are unworthy. It is true that we fall into sin. Yet, God offers us mercy, yes, “abundant mercy,” beyond anything that we can image, if we just seek him.
Our Collect also tells us how God offers this mercy: “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.” That is, our Lord Jesus is the one through whom this mercy is offered. First by his merits, and secondly by his mediation.
In terms of his merits, Scripture tells us that we cannot earn God’s mercy. After all, earned mercy isn’t truly mercy. God doesn’t tally up our good deeds and our bad deeds and see which is greater. Our little sins condemn us just as much as the big ones do. As we read in Article XI,
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
I recently re-read that Homily. In it Abp. Cranmer begins by exegeting St. Paul’s writings on this very issue, followed with support from the ancient Fathers and Doctors of the Church, both East and West, to show this it is Christ’s merits, not ours that earn our salvation. Our part is to put our trust, our faith, in Christ for that salvation. Cranmer then goes on to remind us that this Justification or Declaration of righteousness by faith does not give us license to sin, but rather spurs us on to live righteously because of that justification. Indeed, if we continue on to Articles XII and following, we see that they say the same thing. We do indeed have responsibility to walk in God’s ways rather than our own. We have a responsibility as Christians to live lives characterized by God’s Law. But that obedience flows out of our trust in Christ and his merits rather than trust in our own.
This is where Christ’s mediation comes into play. As the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, our Lord Jesus, in his perfect and glorified humanity, is our High Priest before the Father. He is constantly praying for us, interceding for us, acting as the bridge between God and us. And as the only one who is both God and Man, he is in the unique position to be that High Priest, speaking to God on our behalf, and speaking to us on God’s. Indeed, through our Lord Jesus, God the Father has sent the Holy Ghost to indwell us so that we would be enabled to walk in the Spirit rather than in the Flesh. The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits, as he sanctifies us through the Word and Sacrament. We are then changed by that ministry of the Holy Ghost more and more into Christ’s likeness.
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. He calls the former the “ministration of death” and the “ministration of condemnation,” but he calls the latter the “ministration of the spirit” and the “ministration of righteousness.” He notes that both came with exceeding glory. But there is a sense that the glory of the Old Covenant inspires terror as much as it inspires awe. Why? Because the Law of God always accuses. Its very perfection shows us the sinfulness of our sins. So, when I read those Ezekiel passages or even the very common-sense warnings of Ben Sirach in our First Lesson from Matins, it isn’t really a comfort. Deep down I know that I am the soul who sins, and thus I deserve death. And I’ve got no one to blame but myself.
The New Covenant, by contrast, is indeed a comfort, because it is based on Christ’s merits rather than my own. And because of that, because of the ministration of the Spirit, I do become righteous. I am justified, declared righteous because of Christ; but I also am enabled to live righteously because I have been indwelled with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, in speaking of his own ministry, St. Paul says in our Epistle that God “also hath made us able ministers of the new testament.” The idea here is that God has enabled his ministers to do what we need to do as bishops, priests, and deacons. The call to be ministers of the Gospel is too great to do on our own strength; we need God’s Spirit. The same is true of all of the Christian life. That is why we pray for a strengthening of those gifts of the Spirit in Confirmation. As our Office of Instruction says, Confirmation is the Church’s gift to enable us to live up to our “bounden duty” to “follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.”
In today’s Gospel, we read our Lord’s miracle of healing the deaf-mute. Jesus touched his ears and tongue. Jesus prayed to the Father, and then said to the man, “Ephphatha … Be opened.” One of my brother priests and I were musing as to whether that Aramaic word, Ephphatha, may have been something of an ironic onomatopoeia, since it sounds like someone trying to speak but stumbling over the words! Nevertheless, “the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.”
In the same way, through his merits and mediation, our Lord Jesus opens our ears and tongues so that we can indeed hear the Lord and come to him in prayer.
In our Collect we noted that God is “wont to give more than either we desire or deserve.” The promises of the Gospel are indeed bigger than we can imagine. We deserve death because of our sins. Indeed, we deserve damnation because of them. But God has instead offered us fellowship through our prayers. He has offered us new life in his Spirt. He has offered us himself through union with his Son, in whose name we come boldly to God’s throne.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.