TRINITY VIII — Suscepimus
Introit: (Ps. 48) We have waited, O God, for thy loving-kindness in the midst of thy temple: according to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the world’s end; thy right hand is full of righteousness. Ps. Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised: in the city of our God, even upon his holy hill.
Collect: O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things in heaven and earth: we humbly beseech thee, to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord. They say still unto them that despise me, The Lord hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you. For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it? Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord shall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly. I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. (Jeremiah 23.16-24)
Gradual: (Ps. 31) Be thou my strong rock and house of defence, that thou mayest save me. V. In thee, O God, have I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion.
Epistle: Brethren: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8.12–17)
Alleluia. Hear thou my Law: O my people. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. (St Matthew 7.15-21)
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5.22-23)
We have all heard the expression “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but how many people know that it actually comes from the Bible? In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us to “beware of false prophets, who come to [us] in sheep’s clothing.” This warning is more relevant than we might imagine. We might think, “Oh, I could easily spot a wolf or a false prophet,” but could we really? How? Are they really so easy to spot? The insidious thing about these false prophets is that they appear all innocent and innocuous—they look just like the real thing, just like us—and their message is so appealing, that we may not realize what they actually are, until it is too late. And these wolves are all around us, and even in our midst. Teachings that in the Early Church would have been soundly condemned as heresy are now readily proclaimed in seminaries and churches as an “alternative interpretation” or “modern scholarship.” (“Well, after all, Jesus wasn’t really God; He didn’t actually die—for our sins; He didn’t literally rise from the dead!” “There are many ways to God;” “All you need is love;” … ) It is actually quite difficult to spot these false prophets, and we have become so accustomed to hearing their corrupted message that we may not even realize how dangerous it is to our spiritual health.
So how do we protect ourselves from these false prophets? Our Lord tells us that, “Ye shall know them by their fruits … every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” That is to say, that if their teaching is not congruent with the teachings of Christ, and if it does not lead to or produce what St Paul refers to as the fruits of the Spirit, (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), then it is not from God. But there is also a caveat here, which these false prophets are very quick to point out: if one stands for the truth of the Gospel, one is often seen as promoting hatred, dissension, and intolerance. And are they not correct? Well, yes … and no. And this is why it is very important not to “cherry-pick” passages of Scripture, and use them to our own ends completely devoid of context—in this case, the context of the entire Gospel narrative, and even the rest of the Bible. For instance, Our Lord tells us plainly, in several places, that the world will hate us if we follow Him, and St Paul says that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim 3.12); that is to say, the Gospel of Christ will not always be popular, and may even cause division within households, and draw animosity from the world. Our Lord even warns, in the sermon on the plain, “Woe unto you when all speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (St Luke 6.26)
We can discern the true prophets from the false and the good fruit from the bad by the help of the Holy Spirit. This is where the Epistle reading comes in. “Brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” This follows a long passage about Baptism that began back in chapter 6:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin.” (Rom 6.1-7)
The reason we are not “debtors to sin”—not subject to obey its impulses—is because we have been baptized into Jesus Christ. We are dead to sin and born anew to pursue a life of holiness with the aid of Divine Grace which sanctifies us. St Paul opens this Epistle by saying that we are “called to be saints.” That is the vocation of every Christian: the call to sainthood, that is, to holiness. Whether or not we like or even understand this vocation, it is more important than any other calling in our lives. In Baptism we were given the grace of entrance into the life of the resurrected Christ, and in Confirmation we received even richer grace through the several gifts of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us. Thus, he says in today’s pericope: “if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For … ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”
In last week’s collect, we prayed that God would graft us into Christ: “Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name,” that He may “increase us in true religion” and “nourish us in all [the] goodness” which flows through Christ into us, and to keep us in the same that we may yield the fruit of everlasting life. St Paul uses this analogy in chapter 11 (and also in Ephesian 2 and 3), but in today’s reading he uses the analogy of “adoption.” In both examples the result is the same: that which by nature we did not have, we now possess through the grace of God. Our new life begins with grafting: the cutting of a branch from one tree or vine, and making it to grow from a new tree. We are branches of the tree of our old human nature, which is weak and diseased, its roots so shallow that it cannot properly nourish the fruit, making it small, withered and bitter, if any should grow at all. So if we are to produce full, sweet, good fruit, we must be cut out of that tree of the old nature, and be grafted into the Tree of Life, which is Christ. But remember that grafting requires cutting, not only of the branch, but also of the new host tree. Jesus was cut open for us on the cross, and we are grafted into His wounded side from whence flowed blood and water—the water symbolizing Baptism, and the blood Holy Communion. If we remain grafted in Christ, and His Holy Spirit dwells in us, we will be nourished by His goodness and increase in true religion, and thus be better able to recognize the corrupt fruit of false teachers.
And why do so many people listen to the false prophets? Why are their words so appealing? Because they promise everything that our sinful nature loves: success, comfort, and peace at any cost. They promise that the people will come flocking back to church. They promise that the world will love us and people will speak well of us. Most significantly, they assure us that we can live a selfish life, indulging our sinful passions, and that God approves of it all. “They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”(Jer 23.17) And because this false gospel sounds so appealing, the unsuspecting sheep swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Following the wolf instead of Christ is very easy. And, those who follow even from a distance need to grasp one simple fact: No matter from how far away, there is no safe distance. Especially in our day, we must beware of relative righteousness and relative orthodoxy. We must not be like the Pharisee in the parable (Luke 18.9-14), comparing ourselves to others, and feeling satisfied with ourselves. If he had taken proper account of his life and looked a bit more seriously at the Word of God, he would have prayed the same earnest prayer as the Publican: “God be merciful unto me a sinner.”
Growing the Church is God’s work, and He will continue to do what He has always done: He will add those that He calls to the number of the elect. Christ’s Holy Church is always growing, but it may not be the kind of growth we would like to see. It would indeed be wonderful to see a flood of new members. But what if that doesn’t happen? Nothing about our message will change. We will continue to proclaim the Catholic and Apostolic Faith. We will not try to make the Gospel more ‘relevant’ or appealing, or stop talking about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. As St Paul says, “If anyone, whether I or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than Christ and him crucified, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1.8) Other gospels (not that there can be any other gospel) are not neutral or harmless. In fact, Our Lord warns us just how destructive the teaching of the false prophets is: it rends and tears the spiritual life like the fangs of a wolf. Not only is the false gospel powerless to save, it ultimately kills and destroys. But the day is coming when all the clever disguises of the false teachers will be removed, and they and all their followers will stand before the Judge. Jesus says, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.’ (Mt 7.22-23)
Everything built upon any foundation other than Jesus Christ will surely fall. There is no life apart from His death. When we, who profess the name of Christ, hold fast to Him and His Word, we shall be like a tree planted by the water-side, that bringeth forth good fruit in due season (Psalm 1.3). By nature we are all corrupt trees, incapable of bearing good fruit. But through Baptism we have been grafted into the True Vine, Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore, by the grace and mercy of God, let us cling to Christ and His Word of Life. All other voices are false—strangers, robbers, and false prophets. He alone is the Good Shepherd who leads us in the way to eternal life.
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God: that thy words, which we have heard this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honour and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.