Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
September 4, 2011
I mentioned last Sunday that this morning's Epistle was again going to come from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and the topic at hand begins to speak of the Christian notion of death and dying. Well, this morning's section from I Cor. 15 doesn't actually go to the full depth that the rest of this chapter does in dealing with this life and the life to come but is the platform from which Paul is going to begin to speak about that most important and relevant topic.
A number of you mentioned on several occasions that you so much prefer the Anglican Burial Office to any of the other funerals that you've attended in your lives. Certainly the reverence and solemnity of the rite itself is beautiful and comforting in its language and does indeed set the stage for a service that is hopefully done decently and in order. Another reason that I believe that these services are so beautiful is the fact that we lean so heavily on Holy Scripture in the service and depend on the language of the great hymns of the church to express in words far better than we can say at that particular time. However, I think that the true reason behind those statements is the fact that more times than not the funeral has felt more like a roast of someone's life rather than in the worship of Almighty God and the final rite of the church for the deceased. It's more about the life of the deceased than about the life of the Saviour of the world into whose loving arms we are committing the soul of someone we loved in this life, with the blessed hope of everlasting life resounding in our ears that we will see that person again.
If we look at both of our lessons appointed for today, we see two prime examples of what displaced trust does in our lives. I am only going to touch on the Epistle, but I hope you will also see that same theme shine through in our Gospel lesson of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.
Paul begins this 15th chapter of I Cor. by making four declaratory statements about the Gospel. First, it is the Gospel which Paul preached to them. There is a great deal of trust being exhibited that he is asking them to extend, which he is going to clarify at the end of this passage. Second, it is the Gospel that they received. It is not something that they came up with on their own, it was not something that came from the "devices and desires of their own hearts." No, it is something that they received, and it is the same faith that we receive as well. Third, the Gospel is the means whereby they are now able to stand, and is the strong rock upon which they receive sure footing. The Gospel that they've heard proclaimed and that they now believe is their very foundation. Finally, and most importantly, it is the only place where they may receive salvation and whereby they are saved.
Paul then brings these four statements back to their starting point by adding a caveat that they must continue to return to his faithful preaching and teaching for instruction, correction, and growth in the faith. He is calling upon them to remember that the only source of strength for their life in this world is a faith in the One that will bring them into the perfect joy and fellowship with Him in this life and in the life to come. They cannot depend upon themselves for this but submit their lives wholly into the care, mercy, protection, and pity of Almighty God.
That's an awfully strange way to say that, to place ourselves in a position where we might receive pity. However, remember what we prayed in our collect this morning. God's most glorious example of his unfailing power is in His showing to us his mercy and his pity. It's not in His handiwork and in the things that He created, however marvelous those things are. It's not in the outpouring of gifts from the Holy Spirit, as necessary and important as they are. No, God's most remarkable example of his power is through showing mercy and pity.
The reason this is so is because it points most directly to the cross and what God's Son did upon the cross for us.
Paul offers a reason whereby he can exert his authority to the Corinthian church, and it speaks most clearly as to why his trust is not a disordered one. He tells his hearers that he's not preaching to them his own gospel but the one that he has first received. He's not placing his authority in something that is perishable, but in something that fadeth not away. He says to the Church that first and foremost he's sharing with them the Good News that was given to him-that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again according to the scriptures. Twice he mentions the scriptures, and then he goes on to bear witness to those who share in that same revelation, those who believe that Jesus died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead. We make that same declaration ever time we celebrate the Eucharist, and we do so twice in the liturgy-once in the Creed and once in the Eucharistic prayer.
Finally, Paul acknowledges his shear folly in exulting in himself and says that he is of course the least of all of the Apostles, born out of due time. He was a persecutor of the Church. He sat there and held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. He did everything in his power to stamp out this rebel movement that he saw as a threat to everything that the Jewish faith stood for, and the promises of a Messiah to which they all were looking. He realized that asserting anything else other than the message of Gospel as the source of his authority to preach as a minister of Jesus Christ was shear foolishness. Paul believed that he was unworthy to even bear the title of Apostle, and yet, through God's grace, mercy, and pity, he is able to do just that because by God's grace only he is who he is. It is only through Christ and him crucified can he boast. Anything else is of no worth. But by the grace of God, we are who we are.
Are we not the same? If we are truly honest with ourselves do we not make the same claims that we are not worthy to be the vehicles through which God's work is accomplished? No, we probably don't offer the same excuse as Paul in persecuting the Church, but we offer our shortcomings as excuses nonetheless. We say that we don't know our Bible well enough to lead a Bible study, or talk to that skeptic who has questions about the Christian faith. We often call to mind those times where we've sinned against God and neighbour and shrink back in fear. We lament our state and say that we can't possibly be the one God has called to bring His kingdom into this broken and hurting world.
Yet, we prayed at the beginning of this service that the supreme vehicle through which God's power is exalted is through showing mercy and pity. I need that assurance. Wretch that I am in light of God's law and commandments, I need someone to show me mercy and pity.
For all of those people who make the claim that Jesus was just like all of the other moral teachers who have come and gone, this doesn't hold water. Jesus was not simply bringing some new morality or new way of showing how to be good as opposed to being bad. No, Jesus came to show us that we are dead, but that through Him and through Him alone we might have new life. That new life is not just reserved for the life to come, but in this life as well. If that were not the case then there would have been no reason for Jesus to have taught us to pray that God's will be done on earth as it was in heaven.
Where do we place our trust? How could we possibly have the audacity to think that we could ever trust in our own righteousness? We can't. Why on earth would even bother to pray the Prayer of Humble Access if that were so? After all, when we pray that prayer in just a few minutes, take note of the fact that the word mercy appears 3 times in those 3 sentences.
The great Apostle St. Paul knew that there was only one place in which he could glory and that was in the cross of Jesus Christ. That's why our Anglican Burial Office speaks with such power and conviction is because it attempts to direct our attention away from the casket and onto the cross. The cross is the only way that one lying in that coffin, which we will all one day do as well, can ever have hope in this life, can ever have true faith, and can ever have life everlasting. To the same Lord who gives us that assurance, and whose power is exalted most in His ability to show mercy and pity, be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and praise both now and evermore.