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Celebrating the Saints and Special Holy Days

The Month of March

March 9— Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, 394

Gregory was born around 334.  He was the younger brother of Basil the Great.  After the deaths of Basil and his sister, Macrina, he devoted himself to more strenuous service and study.    His most famous works include, On the Making of Man, Life of Moses, Commentary on the Song of Songs, and his Great Catechism.  In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, he was honored as “the pillar of the Church.”  He fought valiantly for the Nicene faith.  He, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappdocian Fathers;

Scripture Reading:  John 14:23-26;

Collect—Almighty God, who hast revealed to thy Church thine eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons:  Give us grace that, like thy bishop Gregory of Nyssa, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who livest and reignest now and for ever.  Amen

March 17—Patrick, Bishop and missionary of Ireland, 461.

Patrick was born in 390 on the northwest coast of Britain.  His grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon.  When Patrick was 16, he was captured by slave-traders.  He was carried to Ireland and forced to work as a shepherd.  When he was 21, he escaped and returned to Britain.  He returned to Ireland in 431.  Patrick  spent the rest of his life converting the people of Ireland from pagan religions such as Druidism.  Men, get ready for our St. Patrick’s day celebration at our home where we will have some good Irish fellowship and a study of the life of Patrick;

Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28:16-20;

Collect—Almighty God, who in thy providence didst choose thy servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of thee:  Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

March 18—Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, 386

Cyril was born around 315 and became bishop of Jerusalem in 349.  He is famous for his catechisms that he prepared for those who were awaiting baptism.  His five Mystagogical Catecheses on the Sacraments were composed for the newly baptized.  Cyril instituted the observance of Palm Sunday and Holy Week;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 24:44-48;

Collect—Strengthen, O Lord, we beseech thee, the bishops of thy Church in the special calling to be teachers and ministers of the Sacraments, that they, like thy servant Cyril of Jerusalem, may effectively instruct thy people in Christian faith and practice; and that we, taught by them, may enter more fully into the celebration of the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

March 19 – Saint Joseph

It is often very easy for us to forget Joseph, but we see in the gospels what a loving husband he was to Mary, and no doubt, with what care he brought up Jesus in his household.  God communicated with Joseph in dreams and visions to protect the infant Jesus.  He was a descendant of David and worked diligently as a carpenter.  Although we know very little of him, we see in him the kind of quiet devotion which glorifies God;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 2:41-52;

Collect—O God, who from the family of thy servant David didst raise up Joseph to be the guardian of thy incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother:  Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to thy commands; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

March 25 – The Annunciation of Our Lord

This is the day we celebrate the coming of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, to announce that she would be the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ.  So many paintings, songs, and poems have been devoted to the Annunciation.  You will notice that March 25 is nine months from December 25.  Today we marvel at Mary’s words, “Let it be to me according to thy word,” as she accepted both the shame and the blessedness that would come to her as a result of her obedience to God.  We also marvel once again at the mystery of the Incarnation, as the blessed God becomes incarnate in the child whom Mary conceives in her womb;

Scripture Reading:  Luke 1:26-38;

Collect—We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts, that we who have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen. 

March 31 – John Donne, Priest, 1631

John Donne is remembered primarily as a poet, but we often forget that he was an Anglican priest.  At some point in our education, we have probably read his poem, “Death, Be Not Proud,” or “Meditation 17,” with its immortal words, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:  It tolls for thee.” John Donne was born a Roman Catholic and was educated at Oxford and Cambridge.  King James I persuaded Donne to be ordained a priest in the Church of England.  He became the most popular preacher in England.  His sermons reveal that he was both a scholar and poet.  He was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London from 1622 until his death;

Scripture Reading:  Ps. 16:5-11;

Collect—Almighty God, the root and fountain of all being:  Open our eyes to see, with thy servant John Donne, that whatsoever hath any being is a mirror in which we may behold thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liverth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. 

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Strength, Power, and Might

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 13, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.   Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.   For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.   Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  (Eph. 6:10-13) 

          What a wonderful thing it is to be strong!   When I was a boy, I went to see Paul Anderson who was billed as the strongest man in the world.  Some of his accomplishments were listed in Guinness Book of World Records.      I saw Paul Anderson in 1967, I think, and he performed all kinds of weightlifting feats, and then afterword preached a wonderful sermon on proofs of the Resurrection of Christ.  He was not only the world’s strongest man, but also an active witness for Christ.

We see weightlifters in the Olympics and wonder how they could get that strong.  Physical strength is a great blessing, and you don’t know what a blessing it is until you lose it.   Strength is necessary for so much of what we do.   We couldn’t go to work without strength.  We couldn’t engage in athletic competitions without strength.   Think of the various occupations that require great strength, such as construction workers, roofers, roughnecks, and pipefitters.

When we think of people who need great physical strength, soldiers come to mind.  When Paul thinks of the spiritual strength we need, it was only natural to think of soldiers.  The Christian is often portrayed in Scripture as a soldier.     We emphasize this aspect of the Christian life in our baptismal service.   The priest says,

We receive this Child (or person) into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.

When we are baptized, we are enlisted in the army of the Lord.

There are many kinds of soldiers in the world, but the Christian soldier requires more strength than any other person, for as St. Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood.”   We are fighting against principalities and powers.  We are wrestling with spiritual wickedness in high places.  In other words, the Christian is fighting against the forces of hell itself.   Looking at the powerful enemies we face, the apostle Paul looks at the Christian and says, “Be strong.”

Have you ever had someone tell you, “Be strong”?  Most of the time, don’t you hate it when people tell you that?   Usually people say that to you when you are facing some kind of trial or difficulty in your life.   You are dealing with grief,  you are facing a surgery and you are scared, or you have an illness, and it is weighing you down and people say rather flippantly, “Well, you have to be strong.”   You want to reply, “Yes, and I’d like to see you be strong if you were going through what I’m going through.”  You want to say, “I know I have to be strong.  I want to be strong, but the question is, ‘How can I be strong in the face of this difficulty’?”  When we are facing the great battles of life, and when we are facing the great temptations in life, how are we to be strong, especially during those times when you feel your weakest?

This command, “to be strong,” comes to many of God’s people throughout Scripture.   When Joshua was about to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God told him,

Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them.  Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.   This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.  (Joshua 1:6-9)

Three times in those 4 verses, the Lord tells Joshua, “Be strong.”   When we think of soldiers and great military leaders in the Bible, we most often think of Joshua.   He was the one who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.   He was the one who led the people into battle against insurmountable forces.   Perhaps, as he stood on the borders of the Promised Land, he began to wonder, “Can I do this?  Can I really lead these people into this land where there are so many powerful enemies?”  Perhaps he was having doubts.   Why else would the Lord tell him three times, “Be strong”? He must have needed the encouragement.  God may have been saying, “Yes, there are great battles ahead, great enemies to face, but you must be strong.”

The Lord says the same thing to us.   He tells us that we have many battles to face.   We have many spiritual enemies who want to destroy our souls.  They are going to come against us like a flood.   We are going to be tempted to disobey the Lord, the temptations are going to be strong, and we are going to feel as though we are powerless to resist.   We are going to face trials in our lives,  and when those trials come, these forces of hell are going to tempt us to doubt the love and mercy of God, perhaps to even doubt his very existence.   Then, one day, we are going to face death.  We may as well get used to it.   The Christian life is one battle after the other.   There will never be a time when we can put down our swords and take off our armor. We are going to get tired in the conflict, but the Lord comes to us and says, “Be strong.”

This command that God gave to Joshua to be strong is one that keeps being repeated in Scripture.   In the book of Joshua, there is the story of how Joshua captured those five kings hiding in the cave of Makkedah, and we are told Joshua “called for all the men of Israel, and said unto the captains of the men of war which went with him, Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings. And they came near, and put their feet upon the necks of them.   And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the LORD do to all your enemies against whom ye fight” (Joshua 10:24-25).   You see that Joshua is telling his men the same thing that God had told him:  “Be strong and of good courage.”   If you are, you will be able to put your feet on the necks of all your enemies.

In the book of I Chronicles, David is giving his charge to Solomon to build the temple, the house of the Lord, and he uses these words again that God spoke to Joshua:   “Now, my son, the LORD be with thee; and prosper thou, and build the house of the LORD thy God, as he hath said of thee.  Only the LORD give thee wisdom and understanding, and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the LORD thy God.   Then shalt thou prosper, if thou takest heed to fulfil the statutes and judgments which the LORD charged Moses with concerning Israel: be strong, and of good courage; dread not, nor be dismayed”  (I Chron. 22:11-13) .   Then,in chapter 28, David speaks again to Solomon, and we read, “And David said to Solomon his son, Be strong and of good courage, and do it: fear not, nor be dismayed: for the LORD God, even my God, will be with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, until thou hast finished all the work for the service of the house of the LORD” (I Chron. 28:20).

In the New Testament, we have this same command, “Be strong.”  We have it here in Ephesians 6, and we read it again in I Cor. 16:13, where St. Paul writes, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.”  Paul tells Timothy, “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.  Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 2:1-3).   We need strength if we are going to bear the difficulties a soldier must face.

On this past Friday, we celebrated Veteran’s Day, and we gave thanks for all the people who have served their country, and who are serving our country.   Some gave their lives in various wars to preserve our freedoms.   Some survived and live on.   But whether they lived or died, the one thing they had in common was that they had to endure hardness.   It’s not easy being a soldier.   My wife and I were watching a program the other night that described some of the living conditions that soldiers and sailors have to endure.   I don’t think I could endure three days on one of those ships, much less three months.   Because of Tom Brokaw’s book, we now often refer to that WWII generation as “the greatest generation.”   They knew how to endure hardness.   They knew how to be strong.  I don’t know what kind of generation the people of the future will call us.  We may be regarded as “the weakest generation,” because we have been so pampered that we don’t know how to endure hardness.

It is difficult for us to be strong.  Yet,  the Christian is called upon to face life’s toughest battles, and, like the wimps we often are, we say, “I can’t endure this.  I could handle anything but this.”  Still, the command still comes to us, “Be strong.”

How can we be strong in life’s most trying moments?  There are some people who just seem to have a natural ability to be able to face anything.  But usually, no matter how much a person may have this natural fortitude, things often arise where our natural abilities, or our natural strength of mind, fail us.  In these spiritual battles we face, we have no natural strength to be able to endure these things.  You make a great mistake if you think that you can face the forces of hell with your own will power.  When these forces of spiritual wickedness come at us with temptations, doubts, fears, we cannot fight them in our own strength.  They are simply too powerful for us.   But St. Paul gives us the key to victory in this verse:  “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”   The first key to being strong in the spiritual battle is to realize how weak you are and how dependent you are upon the might and power of God.  You can have strength, and you can have might, but to face these battles, it must be his strength and his might.

Three words are used in that short verse that give us the hope of victory in all our spiritual battles:  strength, power, and might.   But strength, power, and might come from the Lord.  If we have his strength, power and might, there is no force we cannot conquer, no trial we cannot endure, and no temptation we cannot subdue.

How do we obtain this strength, this power, this might?   If you are a Christian, it is already at your disposal.    St. Peter writes, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Peter 1:3).    We have already have all things we need to live a godly life, so we already have strength, power, and might, but we don’t access these resources that God has bestowed upon us.  Let’s take a man who is a real couch potato.   He does nothing but sit all day and watch sitcoms and sporting events.  Then, he complains about how weak he is, and how he has shortness of breath and tires so quickly.   He is probably weak because of his inactivity.  If he got  off the couch and worked out, he would find he was getting stronger day by day

Christians complain that they are weak, but are they?  The strength, the power, the might are there at our disposal.  We simply refuse to believe it is there.   Yet, hasn’t God given us evidence throughout our lives that it is there.   Many of you have been through very trying and difficult times, and you probably said,  “I don’t have the strength to get through this.”   But you did.  Wasn’t that the strength, the power, and the might of God working in you, showing you that you could do things that you thought were impossible?

How do we access this strength, power, and might? God has given us all the means of grace to help us acquire these resources.  The first, of course, is prayer.   Prayer is a recognition that we are dependent on God.   Prayer is an expression of real humility, for it is an admission, “I cannot face this on my own.”  It is an incredible moment in a Christian’s life when he fully realizes how dependent he is on God.   Many people seem to never realize it, but for many, there comes that moment when you go to your knees and confess, “Lord, I  cannot endure these struggles unless you give me strength.” Then, that wonderful, miraculous thing does happen:—strength is given.

Then,  the word of God is a means of grace to strengthen us.  If you want strength, power, and might, you must immerse yourself in Scripture, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.   As you absorb God’s word into your heart and mind, your faith is increased.  It is by faith that we access this strength, power, and might.   It is there for us, but we need the faith to believe it, and that faith is increased as we study the word of God.   Remember how St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith.   God made to him a promise that  seemed to be impossible  to fulfill.  God promised him that he would only have a son, but also that he would become the father of many nations.   St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith in this manner:  “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:   He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;  And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21).     This is the faith we must have.   We must be strong in faith, believing the promises of God, and when we truly believe them, we will  have strength, power, and might,  and we will not stagger, even during the onslaught of our mightiest enemies.

Then, there is this sacrament of Holy Communion to strengthen us.   For us, it is more than a memorial.   We really expect, when we partake of these elements, that strength, power, and might will be imparted to us.   There is no one time experience whereby we are given all the strength, power, and might that we will need for the rest of our lives.   It is given to us as we need it, and it is communicated to us through the normal use of the means of grace:  worship, preaching, Bible study, prayer, and the sacraments.  We are here on this day to worship God, but we are also here to receive strength, power, and might.

Yes, we face great and powerful enemies, but we must be strong in the Lord.   In II Chronicles  32 we have the story of how the king of Assyria, Sennacherib,  was about to conquer Judah and Jerusalem when Hezekiah was king.   The Assyrians had the greatest military might in the world at that time.   Their cruelty was legendary, and the whole world was afraid of them, but  Hezekiah goes to the people and he says, “Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him:  With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah” (II Chron. 32:7-8).  There we find the key to strength, power, and might.   The military might of Jerusalem was no match for the Assyrians, but Hezekiah says, “There be more with us than with him.”  The Lord is with us, and will fight our battles.   No matter what battles we face, always remember that God is greater, far more powerful than any force that comes against you.   If you stand in his strength, you cannot be defeated.   We are told that the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah.   Isn’t that beautiful?   Oh, that we could do the same.   We have a whole book of promises telling us this same truth over and over.   No matter what you are facing, God is with you.  God will give you strength.  He will fight your battles.   If we only had faith to believe it to be so, we could rest on his word and find peace, knowing that we will have the strength, power, and might to face whatever might come at us in this life, for it is the strength, power, and might of God himself.   Amen.

 

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The Master Who Serves

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 6, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning;  And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. (Luke 12:35-37)           

          When I was a boy, we used to open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve at the home of my grandparents.  I would be so excited, waiting for that time when I could finally open the gifts, but we had to wait until all the members of the family had arrived.   When someone would knock on the door, I would run to the door and open it, hoping it would be that last group of family members who had finally come.

On the other side of the family, I had an aunt who had four children.   Whenever the older sister came home for the weekend, she always brought gifts and surprises for her little brother and sister.  I can remember how every time there was a knock on the door, my cousins would run to the door, and swing it open, hoping that she would be standing there.

We all know what it is like to wait expectantly for someone.    In this passage we have just read, we find our Lord telling a story of some servants who are waiting for their master to return.   He is at his wedding feast where he is celebrating with his new bride, and he will soon come home, so the servants are busy in the household, trying to get everything ready for his return.   Our Lord is using the slave/master relationship that would exist in a Roman household as the basis of this parable, but there is no doubt that he wants us to interpret this parable as saying something about our relationship to him.  He is our master, we are his servants, and we are awaiting his return.  The point of the story is that we must be ready, but it is interesting in this parable how our Lord subverts what we would think of as the normal master/slave relationship.

The first thing we notice about this relationship is that the servants seem to really love their master, and they want to please him very much.   Normally, in a master/slave relationship, the slave would be afraid of the master, and would perform his duties only out of fear.   In this parable, it seems that these servants really yearn for their master to return.  They keep watching, even if he delays his coming for a long time.  Even if his return is not until far into the night, they keep watching, waiting, keeping themselves in a constant state of readiness, because they lovingly expect his return.    The same is true of our relationship to our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.  We are not serving him because we fear what he might do to us if we are not ready.  Rather, we want to be ready for his return because we love him so much.  When we think of what our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ has done, how he left heavenly glory and came to this earth, how he lived a life of service and sacrifice, and how he suffered the cruel indignities and death of the cross for our sakes, we can’t help but want to see him face to face.  The coming of our Lord is not something that we dread or fear.  Rather, this Second Advent is looked forward to just as you look forward to hearing that knock on the door of the loved one you have been expecting for so long.

`           We can only look forward to his coming if we are ready for it.   Our Lord begins the parable with idea of our loins being girded and our lamps burning.   We must be prepared for his coming.   All of you know what it is like to be expecting company, and you are not ready.   If someone has told you when they are about to arrive, you have one eye on all your duties and the other eye on the clock.     You may be worried that the meal you are preparing is not going to be ready on time, or you may be worried that the house is not neat enough.  If you hear that knock on the door, or the doorbell ring, and you are not ready, you start throwing things anywhere you can hide them.  Dirty dishes go in the dishwasher, clothes are thrown into a room, and everything is stashed away as quickly as possible.  The guests may be left standing at the door for a while as you put everything away.   You will notice in this parable  that when the master knocks on the door, they open to him immediately.  Opening the door immediately indicates how glad they are to see him, but it also demonstrates that they are ready.  Nothing has been left undone.  Everything has been prepared for his return.

The way we are prepared for our Master’s return is by having placed our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.   If we are believers in Christ, we know that our sins have been forgiven, and we know that we can stand before him without fear.  Also, we want to be prepared in the sense that we have done what our Lord has commanded us to do.  We have been living in obedience to him.  We have been letting our lights shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven.   It is a wonderful thing to meet the Lord knowing that you are ready.  If the Lord should come for us at death, or if we meet him when he returns again, let us be ready.  In one sense, the fear of death has been removed from the Christian, for at death, it is as though the Lord is knocking at the door.    If we are ready, we can run and open immediately, knowing that we are prepared.   Whether the Lord comes for us at death, or if we are alive when he returns, let us be so ready, that we will run to the door, open immediately with full assurance that we have done our duty.

Our Lord further subverts the master/slave relationship in this parable by telling us what the master does when he walks into the house.  All of us have an image in our minds of what it would have been like when the master would have arrived.   We would expect the master to barely notice the servants.   Probably, he wouldn’t even acknowledge their presence or speak to them except to bark out a few orders.   Then, we can see him going to the table loaded down with food that his servants have prepared.   He would take a seat, expect water and wine to be brought to him, the various courses of the meal served, and all of his wishes and desires would be carried out by these servants.  But you notice that in this parable, the master comes in and serves the servants.    We are told, “He shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.”   That action probably never happened in the Roman household, but this is the way it is in the house of God.  In this parable, not only are the servants glad to see the master, but the master is happy to see the servants.  He appreciates all the work and effort  they have put forth.  He shows them how much he loves them by asking them to sit at the table, and he serves them.

What a beautiful picture of our Lord Jesus Christ!  He is our Lord and Master, but he is so frequently presented as the servant.  In an incredible act of condescension, when we die, or when he returns, Christ is going to serve us.  He doesn’t treat us as servants, but as friends, even joint heirs.   This is almost too much for us to handle.    That Christ would serve us is an idea that is almost too much for us to comprehend, isn’t it?  Something about it doesn’t seem right.  Now we understand why Peter objected so strongly when Jesus was about to wash his feet.  Surely it should be the other way around.  We must wash his feet, with our tears even.  Nevertheless, our Lord delights to describe himself as the servant of his people, especially serving them in the context of a banquet.     For this reason, heaven is often described as a feast to which we have been invited, and then Christ himself becomes the servant, and gives his people all the blessings which he has prepared for them throughout the eternal ages.    We should not be surprised that Christ would serve us.  When he came into this world, he came as a servant.  Remember how St. Paul said, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  (Phil. 2:5-8)

He came into this world as a servant, the suffering servant.    Just before our Lord instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion, he took a towel, girded himself, just as the parable here describes it, and washed the feet of his disciples.    Though now he has been exalted to the heights of glory, when he comes for us, he will still take the form of a servant and serve his people whom he has saved.

This sacrament of Holy Communion is a foretaste of that time when our Lord will arise and serve us.  When you are kneeling here, receiving the sacrament, Christ is serving you.  Don’t think of me as the one who is serving you.  We pray after the Communion, “ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.”   In the sacrament, Christ comes to us and gives us his own body to eat and his own blood to drink.   He is still among as the one who serves.  After he instituted the Lord’s Supper, the disciples began to argue about which one of them was the greatest, and our Lord said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.   But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.  For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:25-27).    It is in this sacrament that Christ serves us, and in heaven, this glorious feast will continue.  Here, we must leave the table, but there will come a day when we will be seated at his table evermore.

At this time of year, the season of All Saints, we especially remember those who have gone on to be with the Lord.   We are never nearer to those who have gone on before than when we celebrate Holy Communion.  When the priest says, “Lift up your hearts,” we are transported into the heavenly realms with angels and archangels and all the saints who have gone on before.  In these moments, we are seated at the table with them, enjoying communion with Christ, and our Master arises and serves his people.  Those who have gone on before are enjoying communion with him in a way that we cannot describe, but as we participate here, we do have  a glimpse, just a foretaste, of what the saints experience moment by moment.  As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, and he girds himself and serves us, let us look forward to that time, when we will hear that knock on the door.  Let us be ready for it, and then be ready to open.   Three times in this passage our Lord uses the word “blessed”, meaning “happy,”  “ privileged,’ or “to be envied.” There is no greater blessedness than to be ready for his coming, and to know that Christ will gird himself and serve his people.  Amen.

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The Simple Law of Love

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

 

 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.   Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?   Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.   This is the first and great commandment.   And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:34-40)

 

          If you have ever tried to help children with their homework, you know what a difficult task it can be.  You can go over and over the same principles with them, and sometimes it seems that they will never get it straight.  You often look at them and say, “This is not that hard.”  When you help them with math problems, for example, they often come up with all kinds of complicated steps and procedures trying to find the answer, and you look at them and say, “You are making this more difficult than it really is.”   But we often make that same statement to all kinds of people.  “You are making this more difficult than it really is.  My wife has always laughed at how I do household chores the hard way.  I’ll be doing a very simple job around the house, making it very difficult, and she will walk by and say, “Why don’t you just do it like this?”  Then, I’ll stand back and say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”  We often say the same thing about our relationships with one another.  Employers and employees have difficult relationships.  Friends, even in churches, have problems with one another.  Husbands and wives have issues in their relationships.  We are left with the impression that life is very complicated, and our relationships with one another are complex.  Often, when we aren’t getting along with one another, don’t we step back and say, “We are making this harder than it should be.”  The Eagles had a song back in the 70s called “I Can’t Tell You Why,” about lovers having a difficult time with one another, trying to figure out what’s going wrong in their relationship, and there is the line, “We make it harder than it has to be.”

In other words, we shouldn’t be having this much difficulty getting along.  There’s nothing wrong.  We’re just making it harder than it has to be, and I don’t know why we are making it this difficult.  Today, I am going to make the same statement about the Christian life.  We make it harder than it has to be.

In this familiar passage of Scripture, the Pharisees are putting questions to Jesus.  They are testing him, trying to trip him up, to see if they can get him to give what they would consider to be a wrong response.  One of these Pharisees is called a lawyer, but don’t think of that word “lawyer” in the way we think of it.  This man is not an attorney.  This was a man who was an expert in the Law of Moses, one who spent most of his time probably arguing or debating about whether or not a certain action was sinful, or whether a certain action was a violation of the Law of Moses.    This expert in the Law of Moses asks Jesus a question, which was a hotly debated topic, “Which is the great commandment in the law?”  Think of all the laws that Moses gave the people.  Read Exodus–Deuteronomy and read all those laws.  There are laws about moral and immoral behavior, laws about how the community should function legally and the various punishments.  There are laws about all the sacrifices.   Then, we have to remember all the interpretations of the Law that had been handed down as traditions from one generation to another.  There were so many laws to sift through to find the most important one.   Everyone is wondering how Jesus will respond.  What is the greatest, most important commandment?  Is it “Thou shalt not kill”?   Is it, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?   Jesus goes through all the Law, and he doesn’t merely pick a commandment.   He chooses a commandment that summarizes all the other commandments.  He says what we say here every Sunday morning at the beginning of our service:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”  Jesus adds to that one a second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neigh as thyself.”  Then, he says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Jesus has summarized what we sometimes refer to as the two tables of the Law as we find it in the Ten Commandments.  The first four describe our duties toward God, and the remaining six describe our duties toward one another.  If you want to boil all the commandments down to one simple rule, it would be “love.” If you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, then you will have no other gods before him, you won’t make a graven image, you won’t take his name in vain, and you will remember the Sabbath day.  If you love others, then you will honor your father and mother, you won’t kill, you won’t commit adultery, you won’t steal, you won’t lie, and you won’t covet.  St. Paul summarizes the law in the same way.  In Romans 13 he writes, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.   For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).   If you want a general principle about how to live your life, it’s not difficult to find it:  love God, and love one another.

You may be asking, “Are you saying that it is really that simple?”  Yes, I am.  If it is that simple, then why is it so difficult to love God and my neighbor?  It is difficult because we make it harder than it has to be.  We deliberately make it complicated.  Sin has made everything so complex.  It should not be difficult to obey either one of these commandments.  It should not be difficult to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  When you go through the Scriptures, and see how God is described in all his glory, majesty, and beauty, why should it be difficult to love God?   When you consider all that he has given us, why should we find it difficult to love him?   The Psalmist wrote in the 103rd Psalm:  “Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:1-2).    Then the Psalmist begins to list all the benefits we have received from God.  He forgives all your sin, heals all your diseases, saves your life from destruction, showers his lovinkindness and tender mercies all around you, he satisfies you with good things, and renews your strength.   He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.  He has separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west, and he pities us like a father pities his children.  It shouldn’t be difficult to love a God like that.    We make it harder than it has to be.   Why do we make this so hard?  Unlike The Eagles, “I can tell you why.”  It is sin that blinds us to all these benefits we have received.  Sin blinds us so that we cannot see God’s glory, majesty, and goodness.   Sin causes us to focus on the things of the world and the miseries in the world, and we forget all the goodness and mercy of God.

Just as it shouldn’t be difficult to love God, it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbor.  You may be saying, “You don’t know my neighbor.”  Remember, that I am talking about more than your next door neighbor.  We are talking about all people.  Everyone is your neighbor.  You may wonder, “How can you possibly say, ‘It is not difficult to love everyone.’”  Let us remember that we are speaking of love in the Biblical sense.  The command is not that you must “like” your neighbor.  You may not like another person at all.  You may not like their personality or their lifestyle.  There may be very much in your neighbor of which you rightly disapprove.  But remember how St. Paul defines loving your neighbor as doing no harm to your neighbor.  In other words, loving your neighbor simply means doing no harm to him, when he needs help, help him if you can, and to desire what is best for him, both temporally and spiritually.  For this reason, it shouldn’t be difficult to love your neighbor.  What good ever comes from hating your neighbor?  What good ever comes from disobeying one of these laws that has to do with our relationships to others?  What good comes from murdering another human being?  What good comes from sexual immorality?  What good comes from stealing?  What good comes from lying about another person?  What good comes from coveting what belongs to someone else?  Nothing good comes from those actions, but we can say that most of the misery and heartbreak in the world comes from doing those very things.  We should pick up our newspapers every day and read all these stories of war, murder, and theft, and realize that all this has come about because people do harm to their neighbors.  What kind of world would this be if we did no harm to our neighbors?  All of this trouble and misery has come about because of hatred, greed, and not being content with the blessings God has given us.  For this reason I say it shouldn’t be difficult to love our neighbors, because not loving them is the source of most of the pain and suffering in the world.  We should look at this simple commandment and say, “Wouldn’t it be better if we loved one another?” Again, sin has complicated these issues.   Sin causes us to hate one another.  It is sin that causes us to desire what belongs to another person.  It is sin that has caused us to actually take delight in the suffering of other human beings.  It is sin that causes us to find a way around this command to love one another, and justify our hatred and cruelty toward other people.

We make this harder than it has to be.  God’s commandments are pretty simple, but we make them complicated so that we can get around obeying them.   We want to find the loophole.  Let me give you a good example that our Lord ran into time and again.  The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.    Six days shalt thou labor, and do all that thou has to do, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.  In it thou shalt do no manner of work…”  That seems like a simple commandment.   But the question arises, “What is work?” Down through the centuries, the Jews had accumulated thousands of rules and regulations about what was work, and had even gotten to the place where they said that healing someone on the Sabbath was work.  Jesus kept telling them that showing mercy was more important than rules and regulations about how to keep the Sabbath.  As you know, the Puritans did the same thing, devising long lists about what was a violation of the Sabbath day.  Those of us who have tried in times past to observe the Puritan Sabbath know how complicated that can get.  Is it a violation of the Sabbath to eat at a restaurant, watch a ball game, play sports, go fishing, or use electricity?  When you make all these rules , the Sabbath does become a burden rather than a delight.  One of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is simple.  If you go through our Prayer Book, can you find anything here about how we should observe the Sabbath?  Several times in the Prayer Book we have a discussion about the Ten Commandments.  Do you find there a list of do’s and don’ts about the Sabbath?  If you want to follow along, look on page 288 of the Book of Common Prayer, and you will find how our offices of instruction summarize the first four commandments.   You will notice how commandments 1, 2, 3, and 4 are summarized.  How do we obey the first two commandments? Obedience to these two commandments means to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, and to call upon him.  To obey the third commandment means to honor God’s holy Name and his word.   What does it mean to obey the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”?  The Prayer Book says that to obey this commandment means to serve God truly all the days of my life.  The first time I read that I said, “What?”  I was expecting a long list of what to do and what not to do on the Sabbath, and all we get is, “Serve him truly all the days of my life.”   Then, if you want to look at some of the others, like the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” we are told that obedience to his commandment means, “To hurt nobody by word or deed:  to bear no malice or hatred in my heart.”  That sounds simple enough.

Now, turn over to page 291 of the Book of Common Prayer.   You find the question, “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church? Answer.  My bound bounden duty is to follow Christ, worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.”  Your duty to the church is summarized in to those three duties.   Again, there is no long list about what to do on the Sabbath, except, “worship God in his church every Sunday.”

But we are determined to make these commandments complicated.  You remember one of the accounts when this issue of  loving our neighbors came up.  We are told, “And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?   He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?  And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.  And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.  (Luke 10:25-28).   The lawyer knew the correct answer.   Love God, and love your neighbor.  But what does the lawyer do next?   He’s going to make it complicated, for we read in verse 29, “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”  We have a simple commandment:  Love your neighbor.   But we are going to complicate that commandment by asking, “Who is my neighbor?  Is it the person next door?  Is an ungodly man my neighbor?  Are the Gentiles my neighbors?  Are those racially mixed, heretical Samaritans my neighbor? The lawyer is doing what we all do. We complicate it so that we can find a way around obeying it.  It’s complicated, it’s difficult, because sin has corrupted our hearts, and we make complicated something that we really know the answer to already.   We just don’t want to admit that we already know what we should do.  In I Thess. 4:9, St. Paul said, “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.”  We would have expected Paul to go into some long, elaborate explanation on this theme about what brotherly love means.   We would expect him to explain, “Who is your brother?  What does it mean to love your brother?”  St. Paul doesn’t complicate this issue.  He says, “I don’t have to write to you about brotherly love, because God has already taught you what this means.”

If you look at the history of the Christian faith, you would get the impression that the Christian life is really complicated.  How many thousands of books have been written about how to live the Christian life?  Every day it seems that someone comes out with a new book, and they have found the key.  They have found the answer.  Have you ever wondered how people learned to live the Christian life before the invention of the printing press?   Think of it, there were Christians thriving in the world 1400 years before the printing press arrived, and most of them were illiterate.  They must have been terrible Christians, not being able to read the next best seller on the Christian market.  If we could be transported back in time we would probably be shocked at how little they actually knew.  I suppose they were all terrible failures as Christians.  But I wonder if they knew how to love God and how to love their neighbors without all the hundreds of books that have to go into so much detail about how to do that?  I’ll bet they did, because God has already done what is necessary to help us love in this way.

The first thing God did was send his Son into the world, and Jesus showed us what love is.  He went about doing good, he healed the sick, he had compassion on those who were suffering, and he gave himself sacrificially on the cross.   We already know from his example what love is.  He told us that he had given us this example of love so that we should love one another in that way.  He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).  He goes on to say, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).    When John is writing his little epistle of I John he says, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.  For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (I John 3:10-11).   John reminds them that when he was setting down for them the basic truths about the Christian life, one of the first things he taught them was to love one another.  It should be simple, but it’s difficult for us because of the sin that is in our hearts.

To help us to love one another, God gave us the Holy Spirit.  As we yield to the Holy Spirit, we love as Christ loved for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.  Remember that when St. Paul described the fruit of the Spirit, the first characteristic of that fruit is “love.”  In these days when there is so much talk about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, we forget that the primary reason the Holy Spirit is given to us is to give the power to love as Christ loved.  You remember in I Corinthians, St. Paul is dealing with the problem of spiritual gifts in Corinth, and they are fighting about tongues, miracles, healing, and prophesy.   Paul deals with all of those issues and then says, “But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.”  The more excellent way was “love.”  Paul tells them that they are concerned with spiritual gifts, but the most important thing is love.   Look at that passage in its context, and I will substitute the word “love” for “charity,” because the Greek word used here for love is “agape.”  “…And yet show I unto you a more excellent way.   Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.   And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing….  And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 12:31; I Cor. 13:1-3, 13).    Love is the greatest of all gifts that the Holy Spirit brings to us.

Love God, and love your neighbor.  Those two commands are complicated only because we allow the sin in our hearts to complicate them.  But the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, to cleanse our hearts of the hatred and bitterness people feel toward one another.  He gave us his Holy Spirit to place this love in our hearts, for the promise of the New Covenant was, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:34).  Christ came to give us new hearts, and in these new hearts he would write his law.  That simple law is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.”  Amen.

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Power in Prayer

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.   Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:   And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.   Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.   Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.  And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.  (James 5:13-18) 

Not long after I started preaching, I began reading biographies of great preachers and missionaries of the past.  I enjoyed reading about all the wonderful things they did for the Lord, but I was particularly drawn to those biographies about Christians who had the reputation for being mighty in prayer.  I read of the way God answered their prayers in such remarkable ways.  I read about how John Wesley and George Whitefield spent so much time in prayer.  I read about the prayer-filled lives of people such as David Brainerd, Edward Payson, known as “Praying Payson of Portland.”  I read of the amazing prayer lives of people such as John Hyde (“Praying Hyde”), George Mueller, and Rees Howells.    Then, later in life I discovered the biographies of those before the Reformation who were known for their great prayer lives.  I read of all the desert saints and how they withdrew from the world to give themselves totally to prayer.  I read of those who entered very strict monasteries so that they could devote their entire lives to prayer.  I read of Eastern Orthodox saints who lived either in monasteries or as hermits in the forest so that they could do nothing but pray.

If you read enough of those kinds of books, you may begin to develop an idea that the secret to success in prayer is simply time.    It seemed to me that the more time you spend in prayer, the more likely it is that your prayers will be answered, and the more likely it will be that you will see the miraculous begin to happen.  In the early days of my ministry, I wasn’t seeing these great and wonderful works, so I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t spending enough time in prayer.  I read somewhere that John Wesley used to get up at 4:00 A. M. and spend four hours in prayer before he began to do anything else.    So, I started getting up at 4:00 A. M. to pray,  and the result was that it made me too sleepy to do any of my other ministerial duties during the day.    Still throughout my life, and this may be true of you as well, I had these nagging doubts that my prayers were not powerful with God simply because I didn’t spend enough time in prayer.  You may begin to think that the ordinary Christian, the one who has to go to work every day, the mother who has to take care of a husband and children and tend to all the other duties that she may have to do, will never really be mighty in prayer because they will never have the time that is necessary to devote to prayer.

If God has called a person to spend a great deal of time in prayer, and the circumstances of life permit them to do so, there is nothing wrong with  such a life of devtion.  We find instances in Scripture where our Lord continued all night in prayer, but that doesn’t seem to have been a normal occurrence.  We find people like Anna, a widow, who had the time to serve God day and night with prayers.  But when you go through Scripture, do you really find many instances of people who on a daily basis set aside these huge blocks of time for prayer?    Most of the people in the Bible were people like you and me.   They had jobs, and they had numerous other responsibilities that took up most of their days and nights.  There is no command in Scripture that says you must spend at least four hours a day, withdrawn from the world, praying in your closet.   There is no threat that if you do not spend that much time locked away in prayer, your supplications will not be heard.

In this epistle, James writes about prayer, and he is especially concerned about praying for the sick.    In the context of talking about praying for the sick, he makes a statement about prayer in general.  He says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, or as the New International Version has it, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”  James doesn’t say that the prayer of a person who spends at least four hours a day in prayer is powerful and effective.  Such prayers may be powerful, but if they are, it is not because there is some kind of reward from God for having spent that much time in prayer.  God is not saying, “Well, I see you spent your four hours in prayer.  That’s pretty impressive.  I guess I’ll have to give you what you want.”  There is no time requirement.  We simply read that the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

I hope to encourage you by showing that you can be mighty in prayer.  As a matter of fact, if you are a Christian, whether you realize it or not, you are already mighty in prayer.  You can see God answer your prayers in amazing ways even though you don’t spend a great deal of time alone in prayer.  You may be looking at me and asking, “If it’s not the amount of time in prayer that is the secret of success, then what is?  I don’t seem to see God answer my prayers in the same way that some of these people you mentioned did, so if it’s not time, then I must not be fulfilling some other qualification to be mighty in prayer.”

Trying to find the answer to such questions, we look at James 5:16 and we see that word “fervent.”  James says that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.  We tend to draw the conclusion, “That’s the problem.  I’m not fervent enough.”     So, we start trying to work up fervency.  We think the key to success is that our prayers have to show a great deal of emotion.  Have you ever been in a prayer meeting where you saw people trying to work up fervency?  Sometimes they try to work it up with music.   They think that if they get the music going loud enough, sentimental enough, get those emotions flowing, then the prayers will be fervent.  Sometimes people confuse fervency with loudness.  They think that if they pray loudly, they must be praying fervently.   In this attempt to get our prayers answered, we work on the fervency, maybe shed a few tears, and get up from our knees and say, “How was that Lord?  Was that fervent enough?”  We must think that the Lord shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.  That was pretty weak.  I’ve seen you more fervent at football games, so I don’t know if that amount of fervency you just showed measures up.”

There is nothing wrong with fervency in prayer.  As a matter of fact, when we read many of the prayers in the Bible, we see that they were often offered with great fervency and emotion.  There will be times, depending on the occasion, when your prayers may be accompanied with tears, and if you are in pain, either physically or mentally, you may pray loudly.  But the fervency will not arise because you deliberately tried to pray fervently.  Such fervency flows naturally from the emotions and circumstances of the moment.  Just as an aside, let me say something about our Book of Common Prayer.  Many people don’t think that we Anglicans pray fervently because we pray from a book.    First, we don’t pray only from a book.  We know how to pray extemporaneous prayers and cry out to God just like as other Christian does.  We know how to offer fervent prayers without a book, but we also know how to offer fervent prayers from the Prayer Book.    As a matter of fact, many Anglicans find that praying from the Prayer Book actually adds fervor to the prayers, rather than diminishing it, for we are liberated from having to search for words.  Furthermore, by using the Prayer Book we are assured that we are praying prayers that are in accordance with Scripture and the will of God.  As far as fervency goes, just get sick or have some crisis come into your life, and see if you can’t pray those prayers from the Prayer Book with fervency.    When you are in pain, physically or mentally, praying from the Prayer Book in no way diminishes fervency.  But whether we are praying from a book or praying our own words, we make a mistake when we equate fervency with strong, outward emotion.  A simple prayer, sincerely offered, with no great emotion, is still a fervent prayer.

I read a moment ago from the New International Version, and it translates this verse the way most modern translations have it. The word “fervent” does not modify the word prayer.  The word “fervent” is a word that simply means “working.”  It is the word from which we get our word “energy.”  Listen to these more modern translations:  “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV).  “The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working” (ASV).    “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (ESV).    This word “fervent” does not describe you in the act of prayer.   Rather, it describes the power of the prayer as it is it working.   It is not you being fervent, but the result of the prayer that is fervent.  Let’s say you are praying for a sick person.  This verse does not say that you are fervently praying for a sick person.  It is saying that after you pray, the result of the prayer in the life of the person you prayed for will be fervent—it will work powerfully, energetically in that person.  Again, I am saying this to encourage you.  Don’t think that you have to get all worked up emotionally for your prayers to be answered.  God does not answer your prayers because you get sufficiently emotional.  Sincerity in prayer is fervency enough.

Then, you may ask, “What is the requirement that I need to meet so that I can see God answer my prayers in a mighty way.”  Let’s look again at what James said:  “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  You may think that the problem is that you are not righteous enough.   Before you draw that conclusion, let us examine what the Bible means when it speaks of a righteous person.   Does it mean that the person is sinless?  If the requirement for getting our prayers answered is that we must be sinless, then no one would ever have a prayer answered.  As we go through the Scriptures, we find God answering the prayers of his people, but were any of them perfect?  Were any of them sinless?  Did God answer the prayers of Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Peter, and Paul because they were sinless?   We know that they were sinners as we all are.  We know that in the Biblical sense, we are made righteous only through faith in Jesus Christ.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, then God has given you the righteousness of Christ.  You are considered a righteous person because of what Christ has done for you, not because of what you have done.  Of course, we need to be careful not to draw the dangerous conclusion that we can live in rebellion against God and still expect to have our prayers answered.  The Christian is someone who has received the righteousness of Christ by faith, and that person is striving to live in conformity with the commands of Christ.  Occasionally, he fails, but just because he fails does not mean he is not a righteous person.  In the Biblical sense, a righteous person is someone who has faith in Christ and is striving to live in obedience to Christ.   If you are a Christian, you are a righteous person,  and your prayers are powerful.

To clinch this argument, James uses the example of Elijah.  You are probably looking at me and saying, “If I had any hope of getting my prayers answered, you just destroyed it.   I thought I could be mighty in prayer, and now you tell me that the example I should look to is Elijah.  I’m no Elijah.  I mean, if you are going to encourage me to pray, couldn’t you pick somebody I could remotely resemble and say, ‘Well, if he got his prayers answered, maybe I can, too.’ But Elijah?  Forget it.  I’ll never be like Elijah.”  But James is making the point that that Elijah was no different than you.  Notice how James puts it:   “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain : and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.”  The New International Version has it, “Elijah was a man just like us.” The English Standard Version has it, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”  The argument is that Elijah was just like you, and he prayed and stopped the rain for three and a half years.  That’s powerful praying, but it was done by a man no different than you.  Elijah was a good and righteous man, but he was not a sinless man.    Yes, it is true that Elijah could defeat 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but when he hears that Jezebel is out to get him, he runs into the wilderness, sits under the juniper tree and says, “I’m the only good person left in the world.  Everybody else is an idolater.  Lord, just kill me.”  Does that sound like a perfect man of God?  It sounds like a little child full of self-pity, doesn’t it?  All these instances prove that Elijah was a man who sinned and had weaknesses just as we all do, but he could still get his prayers answered in a mighty way.  The same thing is true of all the other people in the Bible.  They had a nature just like ours.  They had failings and shortcomings, but God still answered their prayers.

The same thing is true of all those people you read about in the biographies I mentioned at the beginning of this message.  You have to be careful about  biographies about saints, because very often the biographers only tell you their good, godly qualities, but they don’t tell you of their failings.  You get the idea that they were perfect, and you say, “No wonder God answered their prayers.  They were so good.”  But I guarantee you that if you could go back in time and spend a week with these people, you would find that they were people with like passions as you.  If you could have spent a week with St. Francis of Assisi you would have been disillusioned, for you would have found that he too had his sins, his failings, and these great saints of the past would be the first to admit that to you.

You must get rid of this notion that maybe one day you will be good enough, one day you will be righteous enough, and then God will answer your prayers in a mighty way.  There’s a word for that kind of thinking—legalism.  In other words, you are thinking that God is going to answer your prayers as a reward for being so good.    Get that idea out of your head.  You are never going to be that good.  God does not answer our prayers because of our merits.  He answers our prayers out of his mercy.  He answers our prayers because we come to him through his Son.  Even our prayers have to be cleansed by our Mediator in order that they might be acceptable to God.    In our Communion service we pray, “We beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.”  The same thing is true of our prayers.  When we offer our prayers to God we say the same thing.  We say, “Don’t accept our prayers because of our merits.  We have no merits.   But pardon our offences and receive our prayers through Christ for what he has done.”  God answers our prayers because his Son is righteous, and we are in his Son.

I hope that today I have destroyed every excuse you have for believing that your prayers cannot be answered.  You should go away from this place believing that your prayers are a great force in this world.  There are no other requirements you need to fulfill.   You have been made righteous in Christ, and your prayers are powerful.  You may be asking, “If what you say is true, and I can have the same power in prayer as Elijah, why can’t I stop the rain for three and a half  years?”  Have you ever thought that perhaps God doesn’t want you to stop the rain for three and a half years?   I’m not saying that your prayers will be answered in the same way, with the same dramatic power that we find recorded in Scripture or in some of these biographies you read, but your prayers will accomplish what God wants your prayers to accomplish.  Keep praying.  Keep your Prayer Book handy.  Pray those prayers over and over again.  Pray for peace, for grace, for those in government, for clergy, for all sorts and conditions of men, for the church, for the unity of God’s people, for children, for the sick, and all the other many prayers that are in our Prayer Book.  And as you pray, believe.  Have faith that God will answer, for the prayer of a righteous person has great power in its working.  Amen.

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Strengthening the Inner Man

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 9, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,  That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.  (Eph. 3:14-16) 

During this time of year, every Saturday and Sunday, we get to see some athletes in action who are pretty amazing physical specimens.  When we see some of these football players we are overwhelmed by their size.   If you have an opportunity to actually meet some of these offensive linemen, you feel that you are standing next to a giant of a man.   Some of the other players may not be that large, but they have incredible muscles, and we hear tales of how much they can bench press.  In an outward sense, they are very powerful men.  Yet, every year it seems that we hear more and more stories of how these boys and men who have all this incredible physical strength do not have much moral strength.  We hear of some of them being involved in thefts, losing their tempers and battering their wives or girlfriends, or being arrested for DUI.    While they are incredibly strong on the outside, some of them don’t seem to be very strong on the inside.  They do not seem to have much strength in the way of goodness and virtue.

In the writings of St. Paul, several times we find him referring to this difference between the inward man and the outward man.  In this passage from his epistle to the Ephesians, he prays that they would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man.  In Scripture, there is an outward man and an inner man.  That outward man is what we would think of as the body.  As we have observed, that outward person can be very strong, or it can be very weak.  We all know people who are extremely healthy.  Then, there are those who because of accidents, illnesses, or old age, have become quite weak in the outward man.  As we go through Scripture, we often find that people who are strong in the outward man are not always strong in the inner man.  Take Samson, for example.  Certainly, there was no one stronger in terms of the outward man, but inwardly, what a weakling he often proved to be, unable to control his passions, his anger, and his lusts.  On the other hand, we have someone like the apostle Paul, who seems not to have been a very impressive physical specimen.  He said that other people thought that his outward presence was weak and contemptible.    Knowing all the beatings and other forms of abuse he had experienced, St. Paul probably looked pretty weak.  If he had an eye disease, as some Bible scholars think, he may have even had a facial deformity that was not pleasant to look upon.    Though he may have been weak on the outside, what strength he had inwardly!   He had the strength to continue to go on all those missionary journeys, spreading the gospel of Christ around the world at great cost to his physical health, being in prisons, suffering beating, and floating in the sea after a shipwreck.  But he kept on going for the cause of Christ.  What inner strength he displayed!

As I said, the outward man refers to the body.   I would include in this description of the outward man the brain, the mind, or the intellect.   As we have noticed throughout our lives, some people, because of genetic blessing, or just through intense study, have minds that are very strong and vigorous.  There is more to the inward man than just our thoughts.  The inward main is something spiritual, but the brain is still part of the body.  The brain can become weak and sick.  People can have strokes and their minds never be what they were before.  People can have Alzheimer’s disease, and it is terrible to watch them come to the place where they no longer recognize us, and we really no longer recognize them because of the changes that take place in their personalities.  Yet, people can have strong intellects, and, at the same time, be very weak in a moral and spiritual sense.  We often say that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and his writings do demonstrate great wisdom.  But anybody who thinks he can handle 300 wives and 400 concubines is also demonstrating some severe weakness in wisdom.  We can include the brain as part of this outward man that can be very strong in some ways, and yet not prevent us from some very serious moral failings.

In II Cor. 4:16, St. Paul writes, “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  There again is this distinction between the outward man and the inward man.  This outward man is described as perishing.    Whether we realize it or not, all of us are perishing in this outward man.  There is something within us, the aging process, and it is leading us toward that time when we are going to perish.  When sickness and old age comes along, that sense of the outward man perishing becomes more pronounced.    Bodily organs begin to fail, weakness begins to set in, muscles just aren’t as strong as they used to be, and these brains of ours just don’t seem to function as they once did—we are not able to learn things as fast as we once were, and we become forgetful.  Paul was right when he said that the outward man is perishing, and it is inevitable.

Nevertheless, he told the Corinthians that the inward man is being renewed day.  He told the Ephesians that he was praying that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  What is the inner man that must be strengthened and renewed?  The inner man, as I said, is more than the inner thoughts and feelings of a person.  The inner man is that new person that has been created in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christians are new creations in Christ Jesus.  We are given a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, an inner person that can love God and serve God and have fellowship with God.  It is this inner man that needs to be strengthened and renewed day by day.

You may not realize it at the present time, but you need this inner man, and you need this inner man to be strong.  It is this inner man that will help you during your times of temptation to say, “No.”  It is this inner man that receives the comforts of God when you are sick, bereaved, or facing tragedy in your life.  It is this inner man that is instructed, led, and guided by the Holy Spirit when you are facing difficult choices and decisions in your life.    The great advantage of being a Christian is that when all these things happen to you, you have this inner man to look to and rely upon.   One of the saddest moments in life for many people is that whenever they confront these terrible moments in life, they have no inner man.    They don’t have this person living within that can be comforted and guided during those awful moments.    Sometimes, even the Christian finds that though he has this inner man, he has not been nourishing it, strengthening it, and when these trials come, they find this inner man to be very weak.    For example, when temptations come, if the inner man has not been nourished, the inner man is not strong enough to overcome the desires of the flesh.  Remember how St. Paul put it in Romans 7: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:   But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23) . There again is that term “inward man,” and we can see that Paul says he delights in the law of God after the inward man.  That inward man has been placed in us by God himself, and as such, it delights in the law of God.  This inward man, placed in us by God, wants to obey God.  But there is something else present with us.  There is sin which still resides in us.  In Galatians 5:17, the apostle writes, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”  There is this constant battle going on between the flesh and spirit, between our sinful nature and the inner man, and sometimes, the flesh wins.  We do the things we don’t want to do.  Deep down inside there is this inner man, this true self created by God that wants to do what is right in the sight of God.  But this inner man needs to be strengthened.

St. Paul tells these Ephesian Christians that he is praying for them that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  How does this strengthening take place?  Do we just sit around and wait for it to happen.    No, once again, we must use all the means of grace at our disposal, and the Holy Spirit uses those means to strengthen us.  Just as we use means such as exercise and the right food to nourish these outward bodies, we need to use those things God has given us to strengthen the inner man.  We must study the Scriptures.  We must pray a great deal, praying specifically that the Holy Spirit would strengthen the inner man.  We need to attend worship and the preaching of God’s word.  We need the sacrament of Holy Communion.  We pray that as we take this Holy Communion that we will be “made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us and we in him.”   This is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to preserve us body and soul to everlasting life.  The Holy Spirit uses all these means of grace to strengthen the inner man.

Let me say a special word of encouragement to our young people.   Start strengthening this inner man now!  You are going to need him, and you are going to need him to be strong.  It is a terrible thing to wake up one day, facing a temptation, a trial, a sickness, or a tragedy and realize that you have such a weak inner man to face these challenges.  You know the old saying by Mickey Mantle, “If I knew I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”  The same thing is true of the inner man.  If you live long enough, you are going to need a strong inner man, and you will wish that you had been spending your time strengthening it.

Thanks be to God, abundant strength for the inner man is available if you will only spend the time and effort to access it, for Paul prays that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.”  Where do you get this strength for the inner man?  It is true that you get this strength from the Holy Spirit, but notice how St. Paul describes this source of strength.  St. Paul prays that God would grant this strength “according to the riches of his glory.”  Just think of all the trials and testing you will face.  You are going to need a great deal of strength.  But look to heaven and picture there a huge treasure chest filled with all the strength you need, described here as “the riches of his glory.”  That’s a lot of strength, isn’t it?  How much strength do you need?  All of that strength comes flowing to us from God’s abundant riches of strength. Do you need to be strengthened in the inner man?    Look to God right now and see how glorious he is.  He is glorious in strength and power.  Now, ask him for his strength.  Ask him, pray to him earnestly, and he will give the strength in the inner man that you need.  He has great riches of strength to share with you.

The wonderful thing about this inner strengthening is that it can continue throughout life.  I read to you a moment ago a passage from II Cor. 4, where Paul writes, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  It is so sad that this outward man has to perish.  As we get older, we look in the mirror and see more evidence that the outward man is perishing.  We try so hard to keep the outward man from perishing, but no amount of money, no amount of good eating, and no amount of exercise can put it off forever.  The outward man is perishing.  There are all kinds of theories about why we age.  There are biological theories and genetic theories, and from time to time researchers say that they have come up with ways to slow it down.  Perhaps we will find ways to slow down the aging process in the future, but eventually the outward man perishes, and we all know that it is happening to each of us as we sit here now.  But Paul says that the inward man is being renewed day by day.  What would you think if you could say, “My body is being renewed every day?  I’m not getting older.  I’m getting younger”?  In a spiritual sense, that is to be true of the Christian.  Inwardly, we are not wearing out.  We are being renewed every day.  Bob Dylan wrote a song, later made more popular by The Byrds, where he says, “Oh, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”  The Christian can have that kind of outlook.  The Christian can say, “Every day, my outlook on life, my hope for the future, is getting brighter and brighter.”  Paul could say, “When you look at me, you just see the outward man.  You just see that I’m getting older and how I’m suffering all the results of years of persecution.  But you don’t see the inward man, how I’m being sustained, refreshed, rejuvenated, and this inner man will be sustained until that day when I am in heaven with energy, freshness, and youthful innocence, even better than that which Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden.”

What is the purpose of all this renewing?  Why does the Holy Spirit strengthen the inner man?  Why is the inward man being renewed day by day?  In this same chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul tells us why God strengthens the inner man:  “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;  And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:17-19). All this strengthening of the inner man is designed to show us the love of Christ, to reveal to us the love of Christ.  No matter what we are going through in this life, the inner man is strengthened to look beyond all this and see that love of God which passes knowledge, and when you comprehend that love, you are filled with all the fullness of God.    Let us look now to the riches of his glory and pray that we might be strengthened in the inner man to know the love of Christ which renews us day by day.  Amen.

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The New Pharisees

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.   The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.   I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.  And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14) 

If you really want to insult Christian people, call them a bunch of Pharisees.  As we read the New Testament, the Pharisees come across as one of the villainous groups ever portrayed in Scripture.  When we think of Pharisees we think of those who like to put their piety and devotion on display for the entire world to see.  We imagine them standing in public places, praying these loud, long prayers so that everyone will be sure to see them and praise them for being so devout and holy.  We see them wearing their long robes, with the beautiful borders, the phylacteries worn around their arms or on their foreheads to signal how they were always meditating upon and observing the law of God.  Perhaps, most of all, when we think of the Pharisees, we think of their hypocrisy.  While they put on such a show to convince people of how godly they were, tithing not only their money, but even their herbs, the Pharisees were capable of incredible cruelty.  Though they professed to be obedient to the law, they were those who devoured widow’s houses.  Though they made long prayers, we see them plotting how they might kill Jesus.

One of the most famous descriptions of the Pharisees is found in Luke 18.  Our Lord shows us that one of the chief characteristics of the Pharisees was that they thought they were so much better than other people.  In this Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we notice how the Pharisee brags about how good he is.  He fasts, he tithes, and he is not an extortioner or unjust.  He’s not an adulterer.  Then, in the middle of his prayer, he sort of takes a peak and sees a tax collector, and in effect says, “I’m certainly much better than this tax collector.”  The Pharisee is someone who is convinced of his own goodness, his own righteousness, and how superior he is morally to other people.

Since the Pharisees were so religious, when we look for modern day examples of Pharisaism, we tend to look in the church.    We look for people in the church who pray, sing praises to God, give their money to the church, and yet lead hypocritical lives.  We look at such people and say, “These are the Pharisees of our generation.”  But I think we need to expand the membership of modern Pharisaism and include some other people.  In our generation, I would go so far as to say that most of the Pharisees are outside the church.   In our analysis of the Pharisees we often forget their chief characteristic was that they felt that they did not need a savior.    The Pharisee is someone that we call “self-righteous.”    The Pharisee believed that he was so good and holy, he didn’t need someone to save him from the guilt and power of his sin.    He would not even have classified himself as a sinner.  Those other people, the extortioners, the adulterers, the tax collectors, were the sinners.  We could define Pharisaism in this way:  the Pharisee is someone who feels no need to pray this prayer offered by the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  The Pharisee may pray a great deal, but he sees no need to pray that prayer.

You do not have to go to church to find people who feel that they have no need to pray that prayer.  We would have to say that most people in America today, even among those who are not in the church, see no need to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

In our day, we have intellectual Pharisees.  The chief characteristic of the Pharisee is that he despises others.  Our modern intellectual Pharisees despise others, considering themselves to be so intellectually superior to those fools in churches who believe those fairy stories in the Bible.  While they wouldn’t thank God for their superiority, as this Pharisee in the parable did, they would say to themselves, “I am so glad I am not as other men are.  I am intellectually superior and know that there is no proof for the existence of God.  I am thankful that my keen, enlightened intellect has freed me from the idea that there is a superior being to whom I must one day give account, so there is no need for me to grovel before an almighty tyrant and plead for his mercy.”

Then we have those who say that they believe in God, but they are so superior to those who go to church, because they are broad-minded and tolerant.  They brag that they are so much better than those bigots who go to conservative churches.  They have come to the conclusion that all those verses in the Bible that speak of God being a God of wrath and justice are just remnants of a very primitive belief system.  They have “demythologized” the Bible and have seen that there is no need to look upon ourselves as sinners, because God doesn’t see us as sinners.  They believe that God sees us as those who have made some mistakes, but there is no need to ask God for mercy, for God is not going to hold us accountable for our sins anyway.  They pray with themselves, “God I thank you, that I have realized that I am not a sinner, and even if I were, I still wouldn’t have to ask you for mercy, because you are so loving, you are not going to hold me accountable for my actions.”

Then there are those who call themselves Christians, but won’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites in the church.  This is one of the reasons why I say that so many Pharisees are outside the church.  The new Pharisee is not someone who is inside the church, feeling superior to those outside the church.  The new Pharisee is that person who is outside the church, because he feels he is so superior to those inside the church.   These are the people who pride themselves on saying, “Those hypocrites in the church are religious, but I’m not religious.  I’m spiritual.”  The next time you hear someone use that slogan, just remember, you are listening to a proud Pharisee.  They don’t go to church because they are too good, too spiritual to mingle with those religious hypocrites.  Since they are not guilty of such hypocrisy, they could not bear to get off their lofty pedestal and associate with those ungodly hypocrites who go to church.  They stand and pray with themselves saying, “God I thank you that I am not like those hypocritical people who go to church.  There is no need for me to pray, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ because I am so spiritual.”  Yes, it is true that the church has its share of Pharisees, but atheists, agnostics, members of other religions, and those who don’t go to church have their own form of Pharisaism.  They all have this characteristic in common—they are intellectually, morally, and spiritually, better than other people.

But what is the opposite of Pharisaism? The opposite of the Pharisee is seen in this tax collector who will not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but smites his breast saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  The Christian does not feel that he is superior to anyone, morally, spiritually, or intellectually.  How could the Christian ever feel superior to anyone when the first thing that a Christian has discovered about himself is that he is a sinner?  The Holy Spirit has opened his eyes and made him look into the deep recesses of his heart and what has he found there?  The Christian has found within himself hatred, envy, jealousy, lust, idolatry, cruelty, and other things too horrible to mention.  The Christian knows that there is no sin that he is not capable of committing.  The Christian looks at all the people of the Bible, like David, and knows, that given the right opportunity and the right pressure, he is capable of committing those sins and more.    Even when the Christian sees someone who is living in open rebellion against the law of God, his is always the famous sentiment, “There but by the grace of God, go I.”    The Christian knows that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.  The Christian knows that if he has any virtue at all, it was planted there by Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit has worked in him and produced in him the fruit of righteousness.  We have done nothing at all worthy of praise.

Christians realize that they are sinners, and if we have any goodness at all, it is because God has had mercy on us and produced that goodness in us.  We have nothing of which to boast.  We can’t boast that we are believers because we are intellectually superior.  We are not believers because we have these wonderfully reasonable minds that have deduced with our keen intellects that the gospel is true.  The Christian knows that if he believes it is because God had mercy on him and granted him the ability to believe.  We are just like other people.  By nature, we don’t want to believe the gospel.    By nature, we would much rather not believe the gospel, but God in his mercy has shown us that the gospel is the truth, and gave us hearts to love the gospel message.  Believe a believer is nothing that we can brag or boast about.  Our ability to believe is the merciful act of God.

The Christian knows that he is no better than those outside the church, and he doesn’t have a haughty attitude toward people inside the church either.   The Christian looks upon other believers in Christ as those who are fellow sinners who have received mercy.  We see this humility in St. Paul when he said,   “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am” (I Cor. 15:9-10).  Notice how the apostle says that though he is an apostle, he is not worthy to be called an apostle.  He had been a persecutor of the church, and if he has accomplished anything for the cause of Christ, it is because of the grace of God working in him.  He has done nothing of which he can boast as any kind of innate goodness or virtue.   St. Paul continues these kinds of descriptions of himself.   We find him looking upon himself as  “the least of the apostles,” “less than the least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), and “the chief of sinners” (I Tim. 1:15).  The believer in Christ sees himself the same light.

St. Paul constantly admonishes Christians not to be proud and think ourselves better than others.  In Phil. 2:3, he says, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  In Romans 12:3, he writes, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Paul constantly warns us about the sin of being “highminded,” conceited, arrogant, and proud.   When St. Paul talks about how the Jews were rejected and the Gentiles were grafted into the church, Paul tells Gentile Christians, “Be not highminded but fear.  For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:20-21).  The Christian knows what unbelief lurks in his heart, just waiting for the opportunity to fill our hearts with faithlessness.  Don’t be highminded, but fear.

If there is one characteristic of modern people, especially people in the United States, I would have to say that it is we are highminded—we think we are so much better than we really are.  But Christians,  knowing what we know about ourselves, knowing that what we have done and what we are capable of doing, knowing what a strong tendency there is in us to abandon the faith, we begin the Christian life and end the Christian life with the same prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Even on the last day, when we stand before the judgment bar of God, we will still have only one plea.  We will not stand there saying, “I have done many good works.  I have gone to church.  I have read my Bible daily.  I have contributed to charities.  Surely I deserve a place in heaven because I have been such a good husband, father, mother, wife, such a faithful church member.”  No, we will still be saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Down through the centuries, the people of God have always kept this posture of pleading for the mercy of God.  In Psalm 25:7, the Psalmist prays, “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD.”  The Psalmist doesn’t deny that he is a sinner.  He knows that he is and pleads for mercy.  After David committed his terrible sin with Bathsheba, he begins that beautiful penitential prayer of the 51st Psalm, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.”  David doesn’t say, “Lord, I know that I did wrong, but think back on all the good things I did before I sinned and all the good things I am going to do in the future.”  No, he pleads for mercy.  When St. Paul describes how the Christian has been saved, he puts it like this, “ Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost“(Titus 3:5).  God didn’t save us because we did so many good works.  We have no works of righteousness.  All our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God.  We are saved only because of the mercy that has been shown to us in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.  Christians are often accused of being Pharisees—being haughty, proud, arrogant, feeling that they are better than other people.  If a person is bragging about his own goodness, he is no Christian.  The Christian is one who realizes that he is merely the recipient of mercy.

The great characteristic of true Anglican worship is prayer.  But if I go a little further and ask, “What kind of prayer is most characteristic of Anglican praying,” we would say that it is prayer for mercy.    We open our service with the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”    Three times we ask for mercy, and if we do the ninefold version, nine  times we ask for mercy.  If we do the Decalogue, ten times we ask for mercy.  We begin the service in this manner because we know that even our worship, even our prayers, are filled with such sin and imperfection that they are only received because God is merciful.  In the remainder of the service some 16 times the word “mercy” or some form of it, such as “merciful” is used in our service, not counting the collects and other prayers we use that often contain the word “mercy.”   As a matter of fact, if someone asked you, “What do you do in the worship services of the church,” our answer would be quite unusual for these days.  We would say,  “What we do most in our worship service is plead for mercy.”  I would invite you this morning, for the rest of the service to take note how many times we use the word mercy in our service, not even counting the many hymns we sing that contain that word.  Anglican worship encourages the posture and the attitude of this tax collector.  We do not lift proud and arrogant eyes to heaven and boast of our goodness.  We bow our heads and plead for mercy.  You can’t really see it during the service of Holy Communion, because I have my back turned to you, but while I am saying the prayer, “And though we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences..,”  I strike my chest.  It is a way of remembering this description of the tax collector who smote his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  I make that action on behalf of us all, for we know that we are unworthy to be here, unworthy to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but God receives it out of mercy through Christ our Lord.

The characteristic of the Pharisee, whether we find it in first century Palestine or in 21st century America, is the same.  The Pharisee refuses to bow, refuses to smite his breast in agony over his sin, and refuses to plead for mercy.  But the good news of the gospel is that for all who recognize that they are sinners and that they need mercy, God will grant his merciful forgiveness to those who ask him.  In Psalm 86:5, we find the words, “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”  In Eph. 2, Paul described the condition of the Ephesians before they came to Christ and he says that they walked according to the course of this world.  That is, they yielded to Satan and his devices, they lived in lust, fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and of the mind, and they were those who deserved the wrath of God.  Then, St. Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5).  We are saved for one reason:  God is rich in mercy.  God is so rich in mercy, he sent his son to die on the cross for us.  If we will only believe in what Christ did on the cross, he will forgive all our sins.  He will have mercy on all who come to him through Christ.  Let us come once again to this holy table, praying again the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and then resting assured that he will pity us, for  he is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.  Amen.

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