Rogation Day sermon
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, ROGATION SUNDAY
Epistle: James 1:23-27
Gospel: John 16: 23-33
Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation. These are the words of St John of the Cross, the great sixteenth century mystic, reformer of the Carmelite order, and Teacher of the Church. The sermon this morning of grace is devoted to the accuracy, or perhaps better, the necessity of that insight—seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation. To this end, I will take some time to dwell on the epistle reading because underneath its apparently straightforward surface lies incredible depth and power. It is a reading that absolutely requires meditation in order to penetrate our mind, then turns around on us and demands of us further prayerful contemplation in order to pierce our soul—ultimately opening up for us a window onto the true nature our relationship with God through Christ, in the Holy Spirit.
In the Western branch of the Christian family, today’s epistle reading has been the subject of suspicion and controversy for half a millennium at this point. Its contents and implications have been discussed and argued to the extent that it seems to have obscured the actual text itself. In the Reformation tradition, there has always been a fear that St James’ letter overall, but the content of today’s reading in particular, preaches righteousness through works. I am not sure that any competent theologian has ever actually claimed that it does, but in the infected and vitriolic environment of Reformation and counter-Reformation, St James’ language became problematic. Luther, in his early writings, referred to it as “an epistle of straw… for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (Luther, Preface to the New Testament, 1546). Calvin, interestingly, defended the epistle against its detractors, arguing that it is certainly worthy of an apostle and filled with sound, godly teaching. Calvin writes:
“A doer of the word does not mean here… one who satisfies the law of God, and fulfills it in every part; but one who embraces the law of God from his heart, and testifies by his life, that he hath seriously believed it… The sum of his reasoning is—that faith without works profiteth nothing and is consequently dead” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of James, 1550).
That is all well as far as it goes, but it only scratches at the surface of what St James is talking about. Let me reread today’s epistle text:
But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
So what is going on? St James is doing nothing less than presenting to us an analogy or simile that offers us a glimpse of our true relationship with God. Merely to hear the Word of God, he says, without acting on it—living it—is like looking into a mirror and then going away, forgetting what kind of person one is. Stop and listen to this one more time: When I hear the Word of God, it is as if I am looking into a mirror. When I hear the Word of God without translating what I see into action, it is as if I am looking into a mirror only to forget what I’ve just seen. If this was merely a way of saying that the person who has faith will, as a consequence of that faith, do good works, then the analogy chosen by St James would be limping at best, misleading at worst, and certainly in any case not very helpful.
Friends, the divinely inspired apostle is using language that points to a reality beyond the words themselves; a mystery that cannot be captured in words, but demands quiet and prayerful meditation. Seek in reading and you will find in meditation. I would suggest that you prayerfully return to this reading a few times this week and dwell on it. Knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation. What do we see in a mirror? Let me suggest the following:
The Word is a mirror held up to us, and in it we see ourselves. In order to forget what kind of person we are, we must first have seen what kind of person we are. In the mirror, therefore, we see ourselves. When we abandon the Word by not allowing it to permeate our lives, we abandon ourselves. The Word is clearly not a mirror in the physical sense, in which we see our tired faces as others see them. Rather, the Word of God is a mirror in which we see ourselves as the creatures we are meant to be; the Word of God is a mirror in which we see ourselves as God made us, as God wants us, as God is calling us to become.
This is so because the Word of God is Christ Jesus. St John the Evangelist makes this very clear: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, etc. So, when we behold the Word—which comes to us in Scripture and in the Sacraments—we behold Christ, we behold an image or ourselves as God meant for us to be—as his children, as Christ-like, as partakers of Divinity. The image of Christ is our own image. In the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St John, Jesus, accused of blasphemy for claiming to be one with the Father, rebuts the accusation by asking the following: Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? (Jn 10:34b-36). Those to whom the Word came were indeed described in Psalm 82 as “gods”—understood as participants, through grace, in the Divine. Jesus himself points to this in order to underscore his own Divinity. To say that when we behold the image of Christ we behold our own image is therefore neither hubris, nor blasphemy, but orthodox, catholic teaching. We see in the Word our true spiritual calling, which is to be Christ-like.
This calling is referred to by St James as the perfect law of liberty. When we see ourselves as God wants us, as Christ-like; as redeemed, obedient and worthy children of God, we see perfect liberty. Gone are the shackles of sin—because Christ was without sin. Gone is our distance from God—because Christ was, is and ever shall be True God and one with the Father. Gone is the tribulation that has been the reality of this world since the original transgression of our first ancestors—because, as we hear in the Gospel reading, Christ overcame the world. We see ourselves set perfectly free by Christ’s perfect sacrifice, restored to oneness, harmony with God. We see our spiritual selves, and may recall the words of St Paul, But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (Rom 6:22). Clearly this perfect liberty does not describe our lives in the world, where Christians are as bound by the laws of government and of nature as anyone else; where Christians are no more free from suffering, grief and death than anyone else. The perfect law of liberty that we see in that mirror is our spiritual liberty in Christ.
To see all this—to see ourselves in a state of perfect liberty in and through Christ—and then walk away instead of being moved to act on it, is to deceive ourselves about who we are. It is to deny the reality of what we see in that mirror, the Word. There are many ways in which we can deceive ourselves, but they all hinge on one thing: the idea that there is something else, something more or something different, that I can do that is spiritually more important than that image of my perfect liberty reflected in the Word. Whether I choose wild all-night parties as a means of forgetting about the Word, or penitential self-flagellation as a means of improving on my relationship with God, they are both expressions of a failure to look into the Word and see that Christ has already attained for us a perfect spiritual liberty—and perfect means perfect.
To see all this and actively seize upon it—to take up the struggle to cling to that perfect liberty—is to remain in the perfect law of liberty. Because of God’s grace freely given, we are neither expected, nor required to win all the battles. As we fight the good fight, rune the race to the end, or whatever we want to call it, sin will ensnare us, purity and perfection will elude us. And we will accept this failure with confidence and joy because we have not forgotten what we saw in that mirror—our perfect spiritual liberty in and through Christ; our spiritual destiny thanks to a battle that has once and for all been won for us by the Word incarnate.
We struggle to cling to that perfect liberty by honoring God and serving our fellow human beings. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. When we recognize who we are and cling to that recognition, we will have compassion for the poor, the sorrowful, the sick and the hungry. We will “visit them in their affliction”—strive to alleviate their suffering—because that, friends, is what Christ did for us. He took pity on us and visited us in our affliction. To recognize ourselves in the Word is to be forced from contemplation into action—because that alone is Christ-like behavior.
The fatherless and widows—these are people who at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry were ‘outside the system,’ without families and therefore without safety nets. Today the categories have shifted, but the needs are still out there. Psalm 82, the one that Jesus points to in order to underscore what it is to be gods, admonishes us to defend the poor and fatherless, see that such as are in need and necessity have right. Deliver the outcast and poor, save them from the hand of the ungodly (Ps 82: 3-4) Good works throughout Scripture are such that alleviate suffering and meet the needs of the vulnerable. Other things that we do in the context of our faith may be edifying, instructive, educational or just plain nice—pilgrimages, praying the rosary, singing in the church choir—but no works are demanded of us in Scripture except to serve the needs of the poor and the vulnerable. If those other things, those additional works come in the way of that single Scriptural demand, then they cease to be good and instead work evil in our lives. Why? Because serving the poor means that we have not forgotten who we are called to be; in whose image we see ourselves; what Christ did for us in our affliction.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” said Philo of Alexandria. We, too, are fighting a great battle—a battle to cling onto that mirror image of ourselves that we find in the Word. Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation. Then, when we translate that contemplation into action, we find ourselves at the starting line of a life long race. Absolutely not the finishing line—but we are finally ready to get off the blocks in a race that we run with perfect joy because we know that it has already been won.
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen