Fr. Andrew Armond – The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 20, 2022
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our collect for this morning was originally written for Quinquagesima, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and thus the beginning of Lent. When Thomas Cranmer, who was the architect of the Original Book of Common Prayer, revised the Roman Catholic liturgies in the 1500s, he wanted to shape and re-frame certain aspects of the Christian life to fall more in line with the ongoing Protestant Reformation.
And so, in this collect written right before the beginning of Lent, he stresses that the love of Christ is the fountain from which every virtuous act, every good thing, every act of kindness and forgiveness, ultimately flows. He wanted to remind Christians that it is because of the grace of God, and out of gratitude for that grace, that we enter into the spiritual disciplines of the season of Lent, not because we think that those disciplines will earn us a place in heaven. We cannot, after all, impress God.
The disciplines we undertake in the Lenten season are for our spiritual benefit, to strip away our pretense and the tendency to exalt our selves. We do not point to our own actions but use those actions to draw us nearer to Christ. Cranmer drives this idea home with the action pictured in the collect of God “pouring” the Holy Spirit into our hearts, that empty vessel ready to receive the abundant and overflowing love of Christ.
And what an abundant and overflowing love it is. It must be in order for us to be able to do the things pictured in our readings for today. We need help: we need more than we ourselves are capable of in order to forgive, in order to love our enemies, in order to be still before the Lord and to wait patiently for God. We need help in order to be merciful, just as God our Father is merciful. And we particularly need help, in all of these things, to imitate Christ, for that is what it ultimately means to be a Christian, a “little Christ.”
In his own day, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard found that too many of those surrounding him in the so-called “Christian nation” of Denmark were willing to pay an outward homage to Christianity but that far, far too few were willing to imitate Jesus Christ. As he wrote, “Lord Jesus Christ, you did not come to the world to be served and thus not to be admired either . . . You yourself were the way and the life—and you have asked only for imitators. If we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.”
It is far too easy for us to become infatuated with Jesus; to domesticate and tame Jesus and forget that he wants us to go beyond mere admiration of his teachings and to welcome his ongoing presence into our lives as its sole and primary animating force, as the motive power behind our every action. We eat his flesh and drink his blood so that this power dwells in us, and we in him! Surely this is more than just admiration.
But here, as always, we are faced with a central paradox of our faith. How can we imitate this perfect Jesus? How can we even begin to walk in the love of God each day when most of us fall flat on our faces before breakfast?
Perhaps part of the answer to that question lies in the images and stories from our readings today, which point us to God’s overflowing and abundant grace. Maybe in some real sense, the Christian life involves a repeating process of learning to accept that grace, in order that we can extend it to others.
Think first of Joseph and his brothers. Those brothers, the ones who had previously thrown Joseph in a well and left him for dead, only to sell him into slavery at the last minute: they expect Joseph, now the powerful and mighty prince of Egypt, to order their executions immediately. They expect punishment. They expect revenge. And, instead, they receive grace. They receive forgiveness. They receive abundant life.
The ancient world not only operated on an ethic of revenge, it also operated on an economy of ethical reciprocity known as do ut des: “I give so that you will give.” Even one’s relationship with the gods was governed by this kind of reciprocal giving. One paid one’s temple taxes and conducted one’s sacrifices so that the gods would bless them and give them something in return.
And, we have to admit, that is a pretty attractive idea. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the Bible was that it acknowledged the mysterious and wonderful nature of a God whose ways are beyond our ways; who asks not that we give an equal portion in return, but who asks that we give our whole selves to God so that God can then, instead of giving back just what we gave, give us even more than we could have possibly asked for or imagined.
And so: not only do Joseph’s brothers not get killed immediately in revenge for their previous sins, they receive an abundance in the midst of famine. The story of Joseph is ultimately a story of forgiveness and grace, of going beyond do ut des, the mere norm of ethical reciprocity, to an ethic of overabundance, an ethic of pure gift, of God’s economy of grace.
Jesus invites us to imitate God’s kindness, to be merciful, just as the Father is merciful. As Paul puts it in Romans: while we were sinners, in the midst of rebellion against God, lacking hope and lacking a future, Jesus died for us to reconcile us to God.
To imitate Jesus is to imitate the abundance of God’s mercies for all people, to go beyond merely rewarding the people in our lives who can do something for us in return. As one commentator points out, when Jesus says “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” the real sense of his words are “what kind of a gift is that?” To offer mercy is to offer a gift, a true gift with no expectation of repayment or reciprocity.
Out of the abundance of grace poured into our hearts, out of the Love of Jesus that we have received, we have the ability to give. Jesus gives us the living water of God’s presence, an ever-springing fountain that never goes dry. If we see Jesus’s teachings as just dry ethical rules–even if we merely admire him from afar–then our spiritual lives will indeed be dry and dead, as the collect for today indicates.
But if we are animated and inspired by God’s love for us, if we “come closer” to the God who calls us each day into a nearer and more intimate relationship: there is no limit to what God can do in our lives, no limit to God’s blessing, God’s delight, God’s joy, that will then flow from us into this parched and famished world that doesn’t even realize how desperate it is for one drop of Living Water.
Like grain put into a cup, pressed down so that there is room for more, shaken around so that it settles, and then even more poured in, until it begins to run over: this is how God pours God’s greatest gift of Love into our hearts. Without it, we are bound merely to replicate the ethic of reciprocity we see all around us, an ethic that produces only lifeless works. With it, we are inspired, literally: God breathes New Life into us and enables us to rejoice in the gifts of our salvation, and to share those gifts with the world around us.