Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity
Having received the gift of a Christian faith and living a Christian life can never be allowed to be two different things. I spoke briefly about this last Sunday. If they are separated, if we claim to have faith and never show it in the way we interact with others, in the way we lead out lives, then something is seriously wrong. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Mat 7:20).
Life is sanctified through faith, and faith is nurtured when we live it. Our faith is a free gift from God—and so, my friends, is human life. They go together. Life itself finds its purpose, its fullest expression in adoration and worship of God through faith in Christ Jesus. They cannot be separated. This is why Timothy is admonished to fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called (1 Tim 6:12a).
Works do not save, but the way we lead our lives affects our faith. A tender plant or a flickering candle placed in the middle of hammering rain and howling storms—what do we think is going to happen? A plant must be nurtured and protected in order to grow. A flame must be guarded and shielded in order to not be extinguished. And likewise, our faith must be nurtured, protected, guarded and shielded by the way we live our lives. Only then can it be sustained, flourish and blossom.
This is the process of sanctification, which is an ongoing, unceasing struggle because it is nothing less than the struggle between the heavenly and the earthly, taking place in our hearts. In the words of St Josemaria Escrivá, “It is true, whoever said it, that the soul and the body are two enemies that cannot be separated, and two friends that cannot get along” (The Way, § 195). It is not that the body and the world are evil—but they are fallen, and as such they are irreconcilably at odds with the perfection we are called to seek. A Christian is the subject of sin, as well as of holiness; of flesh, as well as of spirit. “Old Adam is powerful throughout this life and will not have his demands denied without putting up a struggle.” (Laestadius, Dårhushjonet, §58)
So how do we nurture this plant? The answers we get depend on the questions we ask, and it seems that a lot of the time we ask the right question in the wrong way. The question is “what must I do to be saved?” But listen carefully to that question: what must I do to be saved? Often this means simply what it says: what is the minimum I need to do to get in through the gates of heaven? Because of the hodge-podge of Calvinistic-Evangelical teachings about predestination and salvation that are so common today, it is almost customary to ask this question as if it referred to a single, irreversible minimum effort. How can I live my life as conveniently as possible but still get the maximum benefit and make sure that I am not messing up eternity? This is, if not the verbatim question, then at least the mindset depicted in today’s gospel reading:
And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks. (Luke 17-16a)
Of these chaps, once they had received what they wanted, crying for a short time to God, worshipping him when it was convenient to them, only one fell down at the feet of Jesus, thanking and glorifying him. The others? They did the minimum necessary to get what they wanted, after which they were content and went on their merry way, believing that they had received something that lasted without them having to tend to it.
The leprosy is an image of the state of our soul. Faith heals, but continued healing requires continued faith, which in turn requires ongoing devotion and sanctification: that in all that we do, we must fall down before the feet of Christ Jesus, and give him thanks and glory. It is not about us, it is about Christ, and about making sure that our hearts continue to be a fit dwelling for him.
Returning to our question—what must I do to be saved—it can and must be asked in a different way: how can I live a life that is pleasing to God? How can I live so that my action, my deeds and my very being reflect his will, to his greater glory? This is a question about a process, not an event, and when we ask about the process, then we are able to make sure that we don’t squander that precious gift of grace that we receive through faith. Then, friends, we are the leper who came back, gave thanks and praise, and then chose a life of witness. He understood that the minimum was not lasting, that the beginning was only the beginning, that the gifts of Christ have to be realized in the Christian life.
Judas was one of the twelve. He was one of the chosen. He was one of that band of brothers that we all consider to be the most blessedly chosen group of people in history. These twelve, handpicked by Christ, ought to have been as assured of righteousness before God as any other human beings throughout time because, not only did they have faith in Christ, but Christ had already showed that he had faith in them. He had picked them out from among their peers. He had groomed them and trained them and instructed them and educated them. They had walked, quite literally, in his footsteps. They had evangelized on his direct and personal command. Judas was one of them, yet one night he turned around, because, Scripture tells us, he was overcome by Satan, and without any further explanation betrayed the Lord. He too must have felt, at some point in time, that he was truly blessed and chosen. He was, but his human nature, the old Adam, simply couldn’t hack it. Chosen, blessed—and then fallen and accursed throughout time.
We would do well to notice what the disciples said, what they asked, when Christ told them about the treachery that lay ahead. They did not turn around and say, “Oh, well, it’s not going to be me that does this evil deed of which you speak.” No, they were well instructed, and knew about the treachery of our human nature, the war between the flesh and the spirit that St Paul so eloquently writes about at length in his letter to the Romans. They became filled with grief and worry and each of them asked him, “Is it I?” They knew that, being chosen by God did not somehow eradicate their human nature. The spiritual enlightenment given to them as an endowment directly by Christ Jesus did not crucify the flesh and its lusts and desires. They knew that God’s calling requires a response. That walking on God’s path requires a straight walk. That God’s service requires discipline. They had been called by God in the most personal of ways—but they knew that they were still capable of stumbling…and of falling. “Is It I?”
We need to take a page from their book. We need to learn from that poor wretch Judas. We need to understand that the Christian calling is no cake walk. If it is, we’re probably doing it wrong. For as long as we live in the world, we are subject to the temptations and dangers of the world. We are his house, his church, writes St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope (Heb 3:16). If these people, these people chosen to share Christ’s last supper, were concerned that they had been, or were going to be unable to hold fast—is it possible that we might do well to similarly question our ability to serve faithfully to the end?
This is why our worship life, together and individually, is so important. And it is more than merely a coming together of likeminded people to find some peace and solace. Lex orandi, lex credendi is something of an Anglican motto: our rule of prayer is our rule of faith. The way in which we worship and the content of our belief are inseparable. Our faith is based on Scripture and the ecumenical creeds, but they in turn were based on the worship practices of the church. In the early Church, some 70 years of liturgical tradition went by before there was a creed. Some 350 years passed before there was a biblical canon. Worship was ongoing, and the liturgical traditions of the Church provided the theological framework for establishing the creeds and as well as the canon of Scripture.
This is why the liturgy is such an important element of traditional Anglicanism, because the way we worship is a reflection of our faith, but our faith is a product of our worship, in a constant feedback loop. St Prosper of Aquitaine wrote, in the first half of the fifth century:
“Let us consider the sacraments of priestly prayers, which having been handed down by the apostles are celebrated uniformly throughout the whole world and in every catholic Church so that the law of praying might establish the law of believing.”
From the entrance hymn to the dismissal, the mass matters, and throughout the weeks, years, and our entire lives, the mass matters. It is not to be tinkered with. It is not a matter of individual preference or entertainment. It visualizes and enacts our faith and strengthens us, sustains us, points us forward. By the time that Scripture was assembled, the Church already knew what it meant to fall down before the feet of Christ, to worship him, give thanks and glorify him. The Church already knew what it meant to be that blessed leper and had developed its liturgical life as a witness to that insight. To the world, people who protest against liturgical revolution and innovation, against rephrasing prayers to fit with social fads, against abolishing elements of the mass, and so on, are simply reactionary dead enders. Sticks in the mud. But when it comes to the liturgy, the Church has a right to be, is right to be, must be change resistant. Precisely because our common worship, our Eucharistic celebration, is the beating heart of the Body of Christ. The framework within which we continually return to Jesus, fall down at his feet, give him thanks and praise, and so are enabled to sanctify our lives and walk with him to the end. Believing as a Christian and living as a Christian can never be allowed to be separate things. A Christian lives in the Church, and the beating heart of the Church is the mass.
As we approach the Lord’s table, let us therefore pray with the ancient prayer of the Church, in the translation of Cardinal John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.