Fr. Bill Carroll – The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost, October 10, 2021
Be with us, be with us, most merciful Jesus, our great High Priest. And be known to us, as you were known to your first disciples, in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
As often as I can, I pray this prayer with our acolytes before we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. I hope that it reminds us what our worship is all about: Jesus and his mercy, given for the life of the world.
There are many, many prayers like this that priests can say before the service with the altar party. And I’ve cobbled this one together from various sources over the years. One is a traditional prayer that my former bishop used to pray before every service. Another is the “Collect for the Presence of Christ” in the Evening Prayer service in the Prayer Book. Still another source is today’s Epistle. In the fourth chapter of Hebrews, Jesus is called “our great High Priest.” And his priesthood is tied specifically to the compassion he shows for us sinners: “For we do not have a High Priest (the author writes) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
Jesus is the fountain of mercy, and he is friend of sinners. He lives and dies for all of us. And so, we can always, always, always turn to him for help. He is eager to help us. “Let us therefore (the author of Hebrews continues) approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.” That’s what’s going on, at the climax of our liturgy, when we offer the Lord’s Prayer together. We approach God just like Jesus did—as “Abba, Father.” And we do so in union with our Lord—in the power of his Spirit. We recommit ourselves in that prayer to God’s will and God’s coming Kingdom. We ask God to forgive us and give us our daily bread. We ask him to give us the strength to overcome our temptations. We come to God’s throne as children—as brothers and sisters of Jesus. We come to God empty-handed, or we do not come at all.
But what is this “throne of grace”? The phrase evokes the “mercy seat” of the Old Testament—God’s empty throne between the cherubim at the summit of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s where the sacrifice of atonement is offered by the High Priest once a year.
In Hebrews, Jesus himself is the mercy seat. He is the place of redemption. He is the High Priest, as well as the Lamb that is slain. And the “living curtain of his flesh” opens our way into heaven. The symbol of that curtain that divides the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple has become the living flesh of Jesus. And he has opened a way for all of us to enter the everlasting embrace of God. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s mercy in our world.
In the ninth chapter of Hebrews, we read that Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own [precious] blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” A little later, we read that Jesus “did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Jesus is our great High Priest, who intercedes for us, day and night, with the Father. He secures all the blessings and promises of God for each and every one of us.
But his throne is not just in heaven above. It is right here, deep within us, where Jesus lives and reigns, by the power of his Spirit. He lives inside us, assuring us of God’s forgiveness.
And so, whenever our conscience is troubled, whenever we find ourselves in need or sick or grieving or afraid, we can turn back to Jesus—who is both above us and within us. In Jesus, we discover the wideness in God’s mercy, which is “like the wideness of the sea.”
And all of this is good news for a world like this one, where we mistreat one another and suffer from violent divisions. It is good news for a world where we lie and cheat and steal from each other. It’s good news for a world where we often let each other down, where we often exploit those who are most vulnerable. Jesus is pure mercy and goodness. But, at the very same time (and in the very same ways), he is also justice and truth.
The mercy seat is also the judgment seat. The very same man who was put on trial before Pilate has become our judge on the Cross. He shows us God’s mercy. He shows us God’s love suffering for us in this world. And, before him (before Jesus Christ), each and every one of us will have to “render an account.” And that brings us back to Hebrews, chapter 4, where we read that “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare…”
It’s an uncomfortable place to be, naked and laid bare before the very Word of God. At the end of the day, though, God’s truth is the same as his love. God’s love is nothing weak. It is the strongest thing there is. Law and Gospel, mercy and judgment, death and resurrection—all of it comes together in Jesus. In him, we die to our sin, that we might live toward God.
“Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Think for a moment. Who is it in this world that you hold beyond the scope of God’s love? Who is it that you would not like to see in heaven with you?
In today’s lesson from Amos, God specifically warns us against “trampling upon the poor” (that’s the phrase he uses), against bribery and corruption, against the perversion of justice and truth. Because God is the Father of widows and orphans. God establishes justice in the city gates. Where we are opposed to justice, God always establishes it. For then as now, there are those of us who like to throw our weight around and end up harming the people God gave us to love.
God sees us. God really sees us for who we are when we think no one is looking. To God, “all hearts are open, all desires known, no secrets are hid.” His love for us is pure and uncompromising. For, as the Letter to the Hebrews also reminds us: “Our God is a consuming fire.” It is the purity of God’s love that refines us.
But still, God is all mercy, all compassion, all goodness. And so, God “seeks and saves the lost.” Whatever it is that we think separates us from God is a fact about us. It’s never a fact about God. God is always more ready to forgive than we are. He is like a shepherd who has lost his sheep. He is like a woman who has lost her coin. He is like a Father who has lost his Son. He is a God of boundless mercy, who wants us to turn to him and live.
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.