TRINITY III – Respice in me
Introit: (Ps. 25) Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me, O Lord: for I am desolate and in misery: look thou on my misery and my travail: and forgive me all mine iniquities, O my God. Ps. Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: O my God, in thee have I trusted, let me not be confounded. Glory be … Turn thee unto me …
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us: and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may by thy mighty aid be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old. (Micah 7.18-20)
Gradual: (Ps. 55) O cast thy burden upon the Lord: and he shall nourish thee. V. When I called upon the Lord, he heard my voice: from the battle that was against me.
Epistle: Dearly beloved: All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 5.5-11)
Alleluia. God is a righteous judge, strong and patient, and God is provoked every day. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: There drew near unto Jesus all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (St Luke 15.1-10)
“This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”
In a sense, these words are the motto of the Church, and ought to be inscribed upon the chancel arch of every temple in Christendom. In today’s lessons we are reminded that when God’s people think too highly of themselves and rely too little upon Him, we are in trouble. Only when we truly understand where we stand before a holy and righteous God can we appreciate the love, mercy, and grace that He has shown us in giving us His Son. And only when we understand the grace that we have been given can we effectively be the Church—the Body of Christ and people of God—in bearing witness to the rest of the world.
St Peter reminds us of this in the Epistle: “Clothe yourselves with humility: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” He quotes here from Proverbs 3.34: “Surely [God] scorneth the scorners, but he giveth grace unto the lowly.” (Cf. Isaiah 57.15) The deadly sin of pride turns its back upon the wondrous grace of God. Pride overestimates the wrongs we suffer and underestimates those we commit. Pride damages our witness as individuals, but it also inhibits the ministry of the whole Church. Humility is the gateway to God’s grace. In the Beatitudes we are taught that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are poor in spirit—to those who know they are spiritually impoverished. Our Lord then goes on to describe the Christian as one who mourns for his sins, is meek in character, and who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. We can never—and we will never—turn to Christ until we learn humility. The proud have no need of a saviour, because they do not see themselves as bad in the first place, and believe they are capable of fixing any problems all on their own. The humble recognize their own sinfulness and inability to redeem themselves. The story of redemption, as we see throughout Scripture, teaches us that men and women only come to God once they understand that they cannot save themselves. So the humble, when they are found by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Christ, can do nothing but continue in grateful humility, and seek the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in their lives so that they may grow to be more Christ-like.
Today’s Gospel begins with “publicans and sinners” gathering around Jesus to hear Him. These “publicans” were not tavern-keepers, but the tax-collectors (Latin, publicanus) of the day. Now nobody likes the revenue man, but in first-century Roman-occupied Judea, they were even more intensely loathed. They were seen as collaborators, minions of the Roman overlords and traitors to their own people, and were hated as such; but beyond that, they were also morally corrupt. The Roman government farmed out the tax-collection to these local agents, and each was given a quota to raise, but the agent’s own income depended on whatever extra he could extort from his unwilling and resentful victims. For both these reasons the publicans were, in the eyes of the Jews, the most despicable sinners imaginable—certainly not the sort of people with whom any respectable rabbi should associate! That is why the Pharisees and Scribes murmured: “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” These Scribes and Pharisees, by contrast, were notoriously righteous as scrupulous interpreters and observers of the Law. And this is how they viewed themselves, as well.
So Jesus offers them a series of parables beginning with the lost sheep and the lost coin. The point of these stories is that salvation is for those who need salvation—for those who are lost. The shepherd notices that one of his hundred sheep is missing from the flock, and so he heads off into the night—knowing full well that he could run into a wolf or a lion in the dark, fall prey to bandits, or even slip and fall off a cliff—all to track down that one lost sheep. And when he does find it, he carries it back on his shoulders rejoicing. The poor woman who lost a silver coin (probably part of her dowry, worn as a chaplet or bracelet) searches everywhere for it, lighting a lamp and looking under the furniture and into every nook and cranny, desperately sweeping the floor, turning the house upside-down in the hope that it will show up; and when she finally finds it, in expression of her immense joy and relief, throws a party to celebrate. The third parable in the series (not included in today’s pericope) is the familiar story of the lost son, in which the father waits daily at the end of the road, anxiously awaiting his son’s return—that son who had wronged and insulted him, and squandered his inheritance partying and carousing in a foreign city—and when he finally does espy him on the horizon, sprints down the road to meet him, lovingly embraces him and welcomes him back to restored fellowship in the family, not just as one of his hired hands, held at a distance because of the wrong he had done, but truly as his own son returned from the dead. “Likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.” Now obviously the Scribes and Pharisees did also need repentance and salvation, but they did not acknowledge their need, standing proudly upon their own merits and righteousness as devout keepers of the Law. Christ came to seek and to save the lost, and so He went not to the self-righteous Pharisees, smug in the false assurance that their good works and piety would earn them a place in Heaven, but to the dregs of society, to the people who knew they were sinners – they were the ones ready to hear His message of hope and salvation, knowing that they could never please God on their own.
And here is the love of God exemplified: not that we sought Him out, but that He seeks us; not that we decided for Him, but that He is proactive and resolute in reconciling us to Himself, in bringing us into His Kingdom. “Herein is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” as we read in last week’s Epistle from I John. And that is what we see in today’s Gospel. The shepherd goes out into the dark and dangerous mountainside, actively seeking the lost sheep, and will not rest or return until he finds it. The woman sweeps the house, takes a lamp and peers into each dark corner and crevice, and will not give up until she finds that coin. This is the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church. You are that coin, minted and impressed with the image of God, and He knows that you will never be at rest until you rest in Him. He sees you and knows you, even though you’ve hidden yourself under layers of sin and filth. The Spirit seeks and searches for us, even though we often resist Him and do not wish to be found. He is unrelenting. Constantly He calls us away from the things that harm our souls. Constantly, deliberately, He offers the Lord’s undying love and mercy to soothe, strengthen, and settle us, even as we suffer the many temptations and heartaches and assaults of the devil. This is the true picture of the Lord’s mercy: a Spirit who will not be denied, doing whatever it takes to restore and keep us safely within His fold.
Contrary to the world’s way of thinking, our virtue lies not in what we do, but in the fact that we can do nothing good of ourselves, (as so many of our traditional Collects remind us). The world, and sadly, many within the Church, are like those Pharisees, finding a false assurance in their own flawed virtue; but the Christian finds assurance in the perfect work of Christ. Those “publicans and sinners,” scorned by the Pharisees, knew their own unworthiness and were ready to grasp the lifeline of grace extended by the Saviour. Only through the grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can we overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil; but we can only find that assurance when we are humble enough to submit ourselves to the grace of God. And so, St Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” Our walk in Christ will not be without trouble, and the Adversary wants nothing more than our destruction, seeking to consume us. In our postmodern context in the Western World, we so often tend to downplay or ignore the fact that there are angels and demons at work. Yet, far from superstitious imagination, this is a very real threat, so we must always be on guard against those temptations and impulses that tell us we know better than God. We as a culture have traded God for any golden calf that catches our eye, and instead of seeking the Lord and following His commandments to be peaceful, kind, loving, and humble, we celebrate violence, arrogance, selfishness, and pride, because the worldly mantra of “whatever makes you happy” has become the norm. In contrast to this, St Peter paints a picture of the Christian life, a life lived in the grace of God and in the God of all grace—the same God who humbled Himself and came to earth to die for us, for even the worst of the sinners, because He loves us.
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed as we live the Christian life. But God reminds us here that what we are now experiencing is no more than what our brothers and sisters in faith throughout history and around the world have experienced. These “simul justi et peccatores” serve as reminders to us that the God of all grace will see us through this present suffering, and has assured us not only of His presence with us here and now, but of eternal glory hereafter. Our lives are being made perfect in this grace, not immediately, but through the long slow process of sanctification. Peter ends with the statement: “To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.” Even though life will be difficult, no matter what the challenges are, we are invited to live in Christ and to follow Him, seeking to glorify Him in all that we say and do. This is the Christian calling both in the valleys and on the mountain peaks—to live our entire life in saying: “To God be the glory and dominion, now and forever.”
We see in today’s lessons the vastness of God’s love and grace in the work of salvation: not based upon any human merit or worthiness, but as His free and gracious gift, leaving no place for human pride or achievement. As today’s Collect teaches, even our desire to pray is itself a gift of God’s grace. Indeed all the virtues of the Christian life derive from the manifold grace and love of God. The God of all grace has called each of us, and the grace that God bestows in forgiving our sins is also a promise that He will continue to pour out His sustaining grace upon us. He will work in us by the Holy Spirit to perfect our Christ-like character and give us the courage to take the Good News of life and salvation—as those who ourselves once were lost, but now are found—to those still lost and searching.
In school we were taught that if we got lost in the woods, we were to “hug a tree.” That was a simple way of reminding us that with our growing panic and all our attempts to find our own way out, we would only become more lost, and make it even more difficult for rescuers to find us. But there is a profound spiritual wisdom here. Only once we have given up our own vain efforts at trying to find our own way and save ourselves, can Christ find us and save us. “Hug a Tree.” That tree is the Cross. And all throughout our Christian lives, too, there will be times when we lose our way, becoming confused, disoriented, lost. In all those times, remember to “Hug a Tree.” Embrace and cling to the Cross of Christ, the Tree where the lost are found.
“For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Lk 19.10)
Collect: O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious unto all who have gone astray from thy ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and stedfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of thy Word, Jesus Christ thy Son; who liveth and reigneth world without end. 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.