Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 22, 2011
If anyone here were sick or experiencing some sort of nagging health concern, hopefully he would see the services of a physician to begin a course of treatment toward healing and restoration of health. We would most likely research the symptoms that affect our health and well-being to see what steps we might be able to apply to restore wholeness of mind or body or spirit.
Are we doing the same things regarding the spiritual well-being of our soul?
The reason I posed the statement at the very beginning was because of the fact that every one of us here today and in fact everyone alive today is sick and in need of spiritual healing. The question remains, how many recognize this fact? How many are doing anything about it?
Our collect appointed for today opens with that stark acknowledgement. We are afflicted with both an unruly will and disordered affections. As has been pointed out before, two phrases were eliminated from the General Confession in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in the 1979 prayer book, and it was not an accidental omission. In our 1928 Book of Common Prayer, we don’t shy away from admitting that in our sinful state we are indeed “miserable offenders,” and “there is no health in us.”
Our collect this morning repeats that same reality. Isn’t it interesting that we are not hearing this during Lent when we would naturally expect a theme such as this one to come to the forefront? No, we are hearing this on the Fourth Sunday after Easter. The important point to keep in mind here is that this theme is applicable all the time and is not just limited to the penitential season of Lent.
One of the most beautiful components of our Liturgy and our prayers is the structure of the language.
What do I mean by this?
I’ve had the wonderful privilege of hearing The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl speak on multiple occasions about St. Paul’s treatment of law and grace. He asserts that the proper preaching and teaching of the Gospel is to preach the law first in its proper sense which convicts us of our sinfulness and in his words should “reduce us to jelly.” Once you’ve preached the law then the proper place to proceed next is to preach the unmerited grace of God and stop right there. This allows the Holy Spirit to do His work in our heart and our will, and begin to effect the change toward holiness and amendment of life. Dr. Zahl says that a 2nd dose of the law piled on at the end does nothing but inflame the sinful passions that lie beneath the surface. It actually becomes counterproductive because it operates under the false assumption that just because we’re saved, or baptized, or a Christian that we can actually change ourselves. The truth of the matters is that we can’t – God is the only one who can change us.
The reason I mentioned Dr. Zahl and his position on the law and grace is because of the structure of our collects and prayers and our liturgy as a whole. If you take a look at the collect for today as a prime example I hope you will begin to see what he and I are talking about.
That opening petition should reduce us to jelly; it should cause us to stop and seriously look at our lives and humbly admit that I’m caught, I’m busted, that really is about me. That opening sentence truly exposes the human condition for what it is – disordered and out of sync. It does say that we are miserable offenders and that there is no health in us.
The beauty of the prayer is that it doesn’t leave us there to wallow in our misery and bemoan our wretched condition. It moves from that cruel truth and progresses quickly to the comfortable grace that comes through faith in Jesus Christ and his work upon the cross.
The shift from law to grace takes place right up front where we ask God to grant to us the change of heart to begin to love what he commands and to desire those things that he promises. The only avenue by which this will ever work is through love. The great theological virtue of charity makes this possible; there is no other means available. When that most excellent bond of charity becomes rooted within us can we begin to live as new creatures as our Lord wills for us all. It is something that must be central in our prayer life. We must ask for that increase of faith, hope, and charity as we prayed on Quinquagesima Sunday.
The shift then continues further when our collect leaves us with joy and hope. Our world is changing and shifting more rapidly than we’d like it to. If you are anything like me, I’m sure you with that every once in a while things would slow down so that we can at least catch our breath and be sure of our footing. I’ll bet I’m not alone here.
We want some degree of certainty among the sundry and manifold changes of this world. We want a fixed point that isn’t going to leave us wanting and unsure of both our present location or our destiny. Our collect speaks of both that firm foundation and on top of that it is the place where all joy is actually to be found.
Joy is that thing that St. Augustine most clearly articulated throughout his works when he speaks of joy as being that which we seek for its own sake. Joy is in fact the end; it is not a means to some other higher end. True joy is the reunification of Man to God. That has become a reality through the cross of Jesus Christ. All the things that this world puts forward as a potential source of joy will always leave us lacking because it is an unstable trust in something that is perishable, that one day will simply pass away.
Think of the commercials that you see on television or on the Internet or in magazines. They are trying to offer what they believe to be joy in some form or fashion, but in the end they can never deliver on their promises. The latest car, the bigger house, the sleek new boat, the newest technological fad (of course you know I’m being honest in self-conviction on that last one). Think about it though, and you know I’m right. All of these things and more once they’ve been obtained leave us looking for the next best thing. I have always been intrigued by the mission statement of Zaxby’s restaurants where they say they, “Consistently create encore experiences that enrich lives one person at a time!!” Can a fast food restaurant serving chicken fingers and buffalo wings deliver a promise such as that? I’m not one for churches having mission statements, but isn’t the Gospel of Jesus Christ the only thing that can truly enrich lives and create encore experiences because through him we are coming into contact with Almighty God?
True joy can only be found in the Creator of all things and not in any part of His creation. Certainly we can experience God’s beauty and majesty through creation, but that should drive us first to our knees and then raise our hearts in praise and adoration.
It takes a changed heart to love what our Lord commands because it stands counter to who we are. We must seek that changed heart each and every day of our lives. For then we may be able to proclaim with the hymn writer William Cowper, “To see the law by Christ fulfilled, and hear his pardoning voice, changes a slave into a child, and duty into choice.”